THE ILLUSION OF PEACE
The battle for sovereignty among the seven lands of Alba has ended. The prophecy of Peace appears to have come true. But appearances can be deceptive. A new battle is brewing. Its outcome is dependent on the retrieval of a sacred triad of artifacts . . .
THE REALITY OF CHAOS
The hunt for the three precious moonstones begins. For Allegria, Fireborn lightweaver, and her Starborn lover Hallow, it means saving more than worlds. It means rescuing their friend Deo, prisoner in the shadowlands of Eris, where the secrets of the moonstones are buried. Steering Allegria and Hallow in their ocean quest is a mysterious lifebound captain. And he’s setting sail with a warning: no mere mortal has ever survived the journey to Eris, let alone come back alive . . .
THE MYSTERY OF SHADOWS
As the bonds of friendship are threatened and the courage of three heroes challenged, the fate of two kingdoms will be at risk as bestselling author Katie MacAlister’s breathtaking Born Prophesy saga continues.
Born Prophesy, Book 2
THE ILLUSION OF PEACE
Read an Excerpt
“Who would like to read their poem?”
The room was stifling hot, so hot that the faint sheen of reddish-brown dust blown in through the glassless window seemed to dance on every surface in the schoolroom. Lala, apprentice in the Temple of Kiriah Sunbringer ignored the heat and dust to focus every ounce of energy, every iota of power in her being to will Peebles to see her wildly waving arm.
It seemed as if the priestess must be blind, because as she cast her gaze over the class of approximately six young apprentices, all between five and ten summers old, only Lala’s arm was in the air. After a moment’s consideration, Lala raised her second arm, feeling it greatly increased the odds that Peebles would call on her to read her epic poem.
And epic it was. She had worked for many a long hour on the poem, and she was not going to have the bad eyesight of her teacher snatch away the praise that was sure to be heaped upon her head after everyone heard her work.
A gentle cough, really more a clearing of the throat, came from the rear of the room, where Lady Sandor, head of the order of priests, sat. Lala waved her arms with even more vigor, thrilled to the tips of her sandals at the thought of Lady Sandor hearing her poem.
Visions of honors danced in her head. Sandor might be so overcome with her handling of the poem that she would make Lala a full priest right then and there, eight years sooner than usual.
The cough repeated itself, and Peebles, with a sigh, said, “Yes, Lala? You have a poem you wish to share with us?”
Lala didn’t waste time explaining that she did. She didn’t even stand at her desk as the other, more reluctant, apprentices did. She grasped her much scribbled-over pages, and marched to the front of the room, little eddies of dust swirling behind her.
With another sigh, Peebles moved aside and gestured to her. “You may begin, Lala. But mind you, speak clearly and concisely. Lady Sandor is a busy woman, and she has only a few minutes to spend with us.”
Lala ignored Peebles, filled as she was with confidence. This was her moment, her time to shine before the goddess Kiriah and Sandor together. With a business like throat clearing that mimicked Lady Sandor, she picked up the first sheet, and began to read. “The Saga of Allegria Hopebringer, by Lala Smalls, apprentice priest.”
“Allegria? I’m not sure that’s a fitting subject for our class,” Peebles said, casting Sandor a questioning glance. The latter said nothing.
Lala gave the two youngest apprentices in the front row, who had burst into nervous giggles, a quelling glance before returning her attention to her paper.
“’Twas a year ago, on this very day
That Allegria, warrior priestess, rode away.
To join Lord Deosin, she did plan,
and fight the dread invading Harborym!”
“Plan and Harborym don’t rhyme,” Peebles interrupted.
“I couldn’t very well say Harborham,” Lala replied, frowning. “You said that poets sometimes varied their rhyming scheme, and that to do so was allowed.”
“Yes, but those are poets who have much experience—” Peebles, with another glance at Lady Sandor, heaved a third sigh, and said, “We will leave that discussion for another time. Proceed.”
Lala shook her papers in a meaningful manner. Really, to be interrupted was most vexing. She had to count on Lady Sandor recognizing genius even if Peebles didn’t.
“For Deo had taken the invader’s own magic,
and used it to create his army most tragic!
Banes of Eris were they, dire and dreadful to be seen,
They sailed to Genora, land of Deo’s mama, the queen.”
“Your timing, my child,” Peebles murmured, shaking her head. “We must have a talk about meter later.”
“But brave Deo’s father, Lord Israel of Abet
Raced to Genora, and there he met
A handsome young arcanist, one named Hallow
Lost in a strange land, master-less, his fields were fallow.”
“Er…his fields were fallow?” Lady Sandor asked, soundly faintly puzzled.
Lala stifled her irritation at being interrupted again, and with a little frown, said, “It’s a metaphor. It means he didn’t have a plan.”
“Ah. Indeed.” Lady Sandor passed a hand over her mouth as if she had to cough. “Pray continue, child.”
“Allegria and Hallow met and fell in love,
And with them came Thorn, a wooden bird, but not a dove.
Hallow was given Kelos, land of spirits and fierce ghosts,
While Allegria wielded the light of Kiriah’s blessed sun motes.”
“This really isn’t very good,” one of the two youngest apprentices whispered.
“Shhh! She’s looking at us!” the other answered.
Lala sharpened her glare for a moment, then returned to her epic saga.
“Lord Deo, Allegria, Hallow, and Thorn, too
To Starfall city they all but flew.
Queen Dasa was prisoner of a heinous brute,
Wielder of chaos, the captain Racoot.”
“Racin,” came the correction from the back of the small room. “The captain’s name was Racin.”
Lala paid no mind to the comment, too caught up in the beauty of her vision. Besides, she was getting to the good part. She stood on a chair, and with one arm lifted high, continued in as a ringing a tone as she could muster given the heat and dust.
“Deo’s sword sang with blood of the vile Harborym,
While Allegria and Hallow hacked them limb from limb.
But the captain was canny, and through his portal he took the queen,
Leaving Lord Israel behind, to face the Council’s spleen.”
“Really, Lala,” Peebles protested. “Spleen is definitely not a metaphor.”
Lady Sandor gave another one of her odd coughs.
“The Council of Four Armies was very, very mad.
They did not like Deo. They thought he was bad.
So Lord Israel used the queen’s own precious moonstones,
To send Deo far away, to a rocky outcast home.
And when Racin returned, intent on grinding us all to sand,
Allegria and Hallow and Deo cast him from the land.
Through the very portal he came in, and which Allegria destroyed,
but not before Deo, fearing for the Queen, a hasty plan employed.”
Lala paused, giving them all a look she felt was most potent. Every eye was on her, the room as hushed as a tomb. She dropped her voice until it was almost a whisper.
“Now. Deo is gone, and Lord Israel is most grave.
Allegria and Hallow seek the three moonstones to save.
Their friend, and the queen, who are captive on Eris,
Find them they must, else surely they will perish.”
Faint noises of everyday life at the temple wafted in through the window; the distant chatter of priests as they went about their chores, the gentle hum of bees on the honeysuckle that climbed along the corner of the schoolroom, and the soft lowing of cattle as they were herded in for afternoon milking.
But in the room itself, all was silent. Lala smiled to herself. Content that she had held her audience captive in the palm of her hand, and while returning to her seat, adopted a modest expression, as befitted one who was an apprentice priest.
“Er…yes. Very…imaginative.” Peebles seemed to have some sort of trouble speaking, and Lala focused her attention on Lady Sandor when the latter rose and made her way to the front of the room. She paused as she passed by Lala, her lips twitching a little when she looked down at Lala’s hopeful—yet modest expression. Then she was gone, the door closing quietly behind her.
Lala glared at the door, annoyance mingling with anger for a moment until she realized what had happened. Obviously Lady Sandor didn’t want to show favoritism by promoting Lala on the spot. It might make for hard feelings in the older girls. No doubt that’s why Sandor had to appear indifferent.
Thus it was that while Peebles called on one of the other apprentices to recite, Lala planned just how she’d make a fair copy of the poem and present it to Lady Sandor later, so it could be framed and hung in the head priestess’s bedchamber. Perhaps she might slip away from Peeble’s attention long enough to run into town and give a copy over to the local weekly newspaper. Yes. That was a satisfactory thought. A very satisfactory thought, indeed.
“You do not belong here, Allegria Hopebringer. Begone before the Eidolon make you one of their own!”
A face materialized in the almost complete darkness of the crypt, the eyes appearing black and hostile as they considered me. Little tendrils of ghostly light surrounding the face evaporated just as if bits of him were turning to dust before my eyes.
“Blessings of Kiriah, my lord,” I said politely, digging through my admittedly scant knowledge of history. This particular spirit had to be one of the Eidolon thanes, long-forgotten kings who had ruled the seven lands of Alba well before the coming of the modern races. It was rumored that the tunnels honeycombing the area under Kelos were home to beings who had been dead longer than the memory of man, and evidently the rumors were correct. “I mean you no harm, although I wonder how you know me.”
The face seemed to fade into the blackness, only to suddenly appear again, parts of his visage drifting off into nothing as he spoke in a slow, ponderous tone. “You bear the grace of the sun goddess as well as the stink of mortals. Who else would you be?” He faded again, then materialized immediately in front of me, his ethereal face thrust into mine, his voice carrying the heavy rumble of thunder. “Your kind is not welcome to walk our paths! Begone, I say again!”
I held my swords easily, one in each hand, the runes on the blades dulled by the fact that we were deep underground, out of the reach of Bellias Starsong, goddess of the night sky. “I mean you no harm, lord thane, but pass I must. I have been charged by Hallow, the Master of Kelos to search the crypt.” That was not wholly the truth, since said master, who also happened to be the man I loved, believed there was nothing in the crypt but spirits best left to them selves. But I had a bet with the captain of the guard in charge of protecting the ancient center of magic, and I wasn’t going to let him best me.
“Search for what?” For a few moments, curiosity lit the black eyes of the thane.
“Three moonstones hidden by the previous Master. Do you know of them?”
The face faded, remnants of the ghostly halo around it remaining for a few seconds before dissolving .“Mortal concerns mean little to the Eidolon. Leave now.” His voice echoed off the stone arches that lined the crypt.
The fact that he knew who I was made me wonder if we weren’t too quick to dismiss the spirits here as being of no help to us. If he knew me, he might well know the whereabouts of Queen Dasa’s moonstones, scattered after they were last used. “That’s not really an answer. I don’t want to be annoying, but a yes or no would be helpful,” I said, mindful of the way the hairs on my arms rose, warning me of unseen movement around me. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist on an answer. A proper answer, that is, not one that is nothing but confusing.”
A hissing noise followed, as if the thane was sucking in all the air of the already airless crypt. Although I’d placed a lit torch in one of the brackets on the wall, the glow of its golden light didn’t penetrate very far into the cloying darkness. I could make out large rectangular shapes that I knew were sarcophagi of the arcanists who had once resided in Kelos, but beyond the tombs…another shiver rippled down my back. The inky black beyond the pool of light cast by the torch seemed to move and shift, little flickers of shadow visible only in my peripheral vision.
“You challenge the Eidolon?” The words seemed to roll around me like the growl of a cave bear.
“I do not challenge. I simply seek information. If you won’t answer my question, then I must search the crypt.” I gripped my swords and sent a little query to my patron goddess Kiriah. There was no answering warmth, just a claustrophic sense of being buried deep in the earth. I held onto the panic that wanted to rise at the knowledge that somehow I’d displeased the sun goddess, and she was withholding her blessings from me, and instead reminded myself that I had fought deadlier enemies than a single spirit.
But then I’d had Hallow and our friend Deo at my side.
The rush of air behind me gave me less than a second to respond, but it was enough to send me whirling to the side, both of my swords flashing. The thane emerged from the shadows fully formed, his body encased in ghostly armor from at least two millennia in the past, and his translucent white hair flowing around him as if it had a life of its own. But it was the sword he raised that held my attention, and I barely had one of my own narrow blades up in time to block the blow that would have sundered me in twain.
I leaped to the side, clambering onto one of the sarcophagi as he swung his sword low; the visible section of his near-translucent face was frozen in a snarl, his eyes all but spitting black ire at me. I didn’t attack him, using my weapons only to defend myself, but my breath came short when I spoke.
“I know you’re annoyed at being disturbed—” I dove off the stone structure when he leaped up, his sword held high overhead, only to stumble backward when he lunged after me, my swords dancing in the air to parry the lightning-fast blows that seemed to rain down on me. “Goddesses above, how is it that spirits are able to move so quickly? I just want to know if you’ve seen the moonstones! Ow! Oh, now you’re in for it!”
That last was in response to the tip of his blade scratching across my upper arm when I swung both of my swords upwards, crossed in order to stop another of his two-handed blows. He snarled something, but I hadn’t survived the battle of the Fourth Age for nothing. I dove downward, my blades slashing as I rolled past him, only to leap to my feet and watch with satisfaction as one of his legs collapsed. Although I couldn’t kill a spirit, I could attack the energy he used to become corporeal, and I had just weakened the stream of energy that flowed up the thane’s left leg.
He collapsed with another snarl, kneeling on his good leg to glare at me.
“I’d say I’m sorry for hurting you, but we both know that you’ll be fine just as soon as you rally enough energy to restore your leg,” I said, panting a little. “Now, perhaps you’ll answer my question—”
A faint breeze behind me stirred my hair. To my horror, the fallen thane smiled, then stood up, his damaged leg apparently whole again.
Fear gripped me good and hard then, along with the awareness that I had done something extremely foolish, and if I didn’t get out of there, I might well join him in the spirit world.
“It is too late,” was all he said before he melted away into nothing. I turned and gazed down a long hallway made up of graceful white stone arches, receding as far as I could see. The fact that I could see them sent another wave of fear through me, gripping my belly with a cold hand; from the light that illuminated the length of the crypt came the slowly emerging Eidolon, members of the thane’s company. Men and women who had fought two thousand years before, arcanists and soldiers and wielders of magic long since lost to our kind, all formed wispy grey figures. The stone ribs of the crypt were visible through their bodies as they started forward.
“Kiriah’s ten toes,” I swore under my breath, and spun around to run for my life.
A war cry rose from behind me, echoing down the long hallway and catching me as I was partway up the thirty-nine steps that led to the cellar under the tower of Kelos. I didn’t dare glance behind me to see how close the spirits were, having had ample proof from my brief skirmish with the thane to know that spirits can move very quickly when they choose to do so. But a cold breath seemed to touch the back of my neck when I reached the door. I sheathed my swords and yanked open the portal, then slid through the opening, slamming it shut just as the nearest spirit swung his sword.
Panting so loudly that I couldn’t hear anything but the beat of my own heart, I clutched the circular iron link that served as an anchor for a chain that normally stretched across the door, holding tight in case the spirits tried to follow. The runes that had been engraved into the iron bands that crisscrossed the door flared to life with a dull white glow, then faded. I tried to catch my breath, well aware that my hands were shaking. After taking a moment to control myself, I wound the chain through the anchor, and locked it into place.
The captain of the guard was waiting when I turned around, his arms crossed, a slight smile on his lips. I relaxed at the sight of him, one part of me marveling that I had grown so comfortable with the spirits—the captain included—who resided above ground in Kelos, although they were often a trial to Hallow, they had given me no problems.
Except for the captain, who took offense over the fact that the first time we’d met I had separated his ghostly head from the rest of his body. It had taken him a good hour to generate enough power to become corporeal again; a fact that almost a year later, he still held against me, often setting me difficult challenges to overcome.
Like the Eidolon. With the memory of just how close my escape had been, I glared at the captain.
His smiled broadened.
“If Hallow wasn’t busy trying to find those blasted moonstones, I’d so tell him you set me up,” I informed the captain, handing him the key to the locks.
His eyebrows rose. “I take it that you had no luck?”
“No, I didn’t. Why didn’t you tell me that the spirits down there were Eidolon?”
His smile became even bigger. “You said you wished for more practice with your swords than my soldiers offer you. Who better to hone your skills that the most feared warriors of Alba?”
“The thane I could handle…mostly…but there were hundreds more of them that came pouring out of their resting places,” I said, with a glance back at the door. I hesitated before climbing the second set of stairs. “Er…you’re sure that’s going to hold them? They were more than a little annoyed when I fought their king.”
“Oh, the door isn’t scribed to protect us from the Eidolon,” the captain said blithely as he preceded me up the stairs. “It’s to keep other spirits from bothering them.”
“It just keeps the spirits out?” I shook my head. “That makes no sense. If they wanted to remain solitary, why wouldn’t the protection extend to keeping everyone out?”
He paused and cocked an eyebrow at me, a gleam of amusement in his faded eyes. “No mortal would be foolish enough to annoy an Eidolon. I assumed you knew that.”
“Oh, you did not…gah!” I said rude things under my breath as the captain marched upward, but at the same time, I felt twitchy until we emerged into the open, climbing out of the cellar of an outbuilding next to the master’s tower. I turned my face up to the sun, and sent a query up to the goddess, but other than a slight warmth that was my awareness of her, Kiriah seemed to keep her blessings from me.
My heart fell. It seemed that every day since the battle that ended with my channeling Kiriah herself, I had been more and more removed from her. One day, the paranoid part of my mind whispered, one day, she will refuse you altogether. And then where will you be? “Useless. Wholly and utterly useless…” I answered the insidious whisper.
“You think so?” The captain paused and made a show of turning back toward the stairs. “I can have the lock and chain removed from the door if you wish to confront the Eidolon again, although I can’t say I recommend such an action.”
“No, I wasn’t talking about the Eidolon. I meant…oh, never mind.” I pushed my misery down into a small ball of worry and walked past the captain. “Although, you could have told me that the thane himself was down there. Yes, I know I said I wanted practice fighting more adept opponents, but next time, let me know that I will be fighting against a king and his entire company.”
The captain shrugged and strode next to me when I went to the stable yard, where there was a pump. My throat was parched from the airless, dusty environment of the crypt. “It does little good talking when the Master won’t listen to what I have to say.”
“Hallow is very busy trying to locate the moonstones. The two he hasn’t found, that is.” I splashed my face with water from the pump, then took a long drink, washing away not just the dust, but the panic that had filled me in the crypt when faced with the knowledge that I was in over my head.
“So he repeatedly tells me, when he deigns to notice me, that is.”
I frowned down at my hands holding the metal drinking cup that hung on the pump. If I’d had my lightweaving abilities in the crypt…if Kiriah had not turned deaf ears to my pleas…if I had been more adept with my swords, then I wouldn’t have run from the Eidolon.
“Which isn’t very often. ‘You are naught but a spirit bound to this place,’ he said to me the other day, just as if the captain of the guard of Kelos has no power of his own! I have served seven masters, and I will serve seven more before I pass into the region beyond this world.”
“Mmhmm,” I said absently, then filled a bucket and hauled it over to where my mule Buttercup dozed in a small paddock. She rolled an eye toward me to see if I had any treats, looking disappointed when I merely filled her water tub.
“He treats me as if I am nothing but an annoyance, and yet I have done my best to serve him.” The captain’s voice was filled with pique.
I was well aware that he disapproved of Hallow almost as much as he did me, but there wasn’t much I could do about that even if I had the time to act as peacemaker. “I’m sure he’s very grateful you keep the spirits here in order,” I murmured, wondering how best to tell Hallow that my expedition to the crypt had been useless. Not that he had truly believed Exodius, the former Master of Kelos, who had hidden the precious moonstones there, but still, it was one more setback. If we didn’t get those stones, we couldn’t rescue our friend Deo and his mother, Dasa.
And the guilt that plucked at me over Deo’s plunge through the portal to the shadowland of Eris made it imperative that we find a way to save both of them.
“I do more than simply keep the denizens of Kelos in order,” the captain said with a snort. “I am a guardian, protector of the knowledge of Kelos. To me, the Masters impart their most valuable secrets, knowing I would protect and keep them until such time as they are needed. And that time is now.”
He followed when I headed toward the tower that was one of the few standing structures in Kelos. Once the famed center of learning for arcanists all over Alba, it had fallen into ruin; most of the buildings having collapsed into piles of rubble and stained bricks. Of the beautiful silver domes, pierced with the shapes of stars, planets, and other heavenly bodies, nothing remained but tales of glory days in the books found in Hallow’s library. Now, the same grey dust that made up the ground seemed to gently envelop everything from the scrubby plants that grew through the broken walls and foundations, down to Buttercup, and Hallow’s horse Penn. At least once a day I would have to dust them both off.
“I wish I could have seen Kelos when it was in its prime,” I said, distracted for a few moments. “Hallow says it was famed across Genora and Aryia both and was second only to Starfall City for beauty. I would love to have seen that.”
“It was far more beautiful than the city of the queen,” the captain said, his voice full of pride as he walked next to me. “The white stone of the towers glowed at night, and the domes shone almost as bright as Bellias Starsong herself. And of course, we had many more arcanists than those who served at Starfall. It has ever been an honor to serve the Master directly, and the arcanists who lived here were the most powerful Alba had ever seen.”
“Hallow’s pretty powerful in his own right,” I said, feeling defensive on his behalf. I didn’t mind the captain chaffing Hallow a little, but it was quite obvious to me just how learned Hallow had become since Exodius had gone into the spirit realm, leaving Hallow to wrangle the arcanists who made up their order. “Without his help, Lord Deo and I would never have been able to close the rifts that the Harborym used to invade us. I will admit that I don’t know the extent of Exodius’s power, but I have seen Hallow in battle, and it was awe inspiring.”
The captain eyed me. “So sayeth the priest who has channeled Kiriah Sunbringer herself.”
I couldn’t help but glance down at my hands. Fine scars ran from my elbows to my fingertips, fanning out like flames, the result of our last battle with the Harborym. “I am ever blessed by the goddess,” I murmured modestly, knowing just how much I owed to my lightweaving abilities.
If only Kiriah would grant me the full extent of my powers again, rather than the brief little sips that came with decreasing frequency…
“Which is why the Master needs to think twice about spurning my offer of help. Without it, you will not succeed.”
I opened the door to the tower where Hallow and I resided, the runes on the door keeping the spirits from being able to enter, including the captain of the guard. He glowed with a faint bluish white light, his face set in its usual impassive expression, but I felt a sense of frustration in him that was different from his normal impatience with Hallow and me. I hesitated, biting my lip for a moment, knowing that I didn’t have time to try to resolve whatever problems the captain had with Hallow’s leadership. “We would never spurn your assistance,” I told him in a soothing tone, deciding a few seconds spent smoothing his ruffled feathers might give us a little peace and quiet. “But unless Exodius told you where he hid Queen Dasa’s moonstones, then I doubt if you can help us much. Hallow is doing everything he can to locate the two moonstones that are hidden, which is why it’s important to let him conduct his search without disruption. The spells he casts to look through the veils that obscure the stones’ location take much concentration—”
“Bah,” the captain said with a snort. “All he has to do is take the talisman.”
“What the talisman?” I asked, wanting to go in and report my lack of findings, and more importantly, check how Hallow was doing. I hadn’t seen him since early evening the night before, when he had climbed to the upper floor of the tower, where he joined five other arcanists scattered across Aryia and Genora to commune via arcany.
A coy expression crossed the captain’s face, translucent as it was. “I cannot give it to anyone but the Master of Kelos. It is he who must seek my aid. Thus it has been, and thus it ever will be.”
“Doesn’t it normally work the other way around?” I asked, confused. “Shouldn’t you serve the Master?”
“I do!” he said, looking outraged. “But I am the captain of the guard! It is for the Master to ask for my service.”
I opened my mouth to say that didn’t make any sense, then shook my head, and murmured something about letting Hallow know what he’d said. By the time I made it to our living quarters halfway up the tower, I had mentally drafted a speech in which I pointed out to Hallow how important rest was, and that he hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours; thus, he needed to let me put him to bed. And if I joined him, making sure he was well loved before he rested, well, who was to complain?
Our living area showed no sign of a blond-haired, blue-eyed arcanist, which made me tsk to myself in irritation. I glanced upward and tried to decide if it was worth interrupting Hallow to tell him about the Eidolon, then decided that he’d had long enough to commune. “It’s time we do something,” I said aloud, climbing a short ladder that was used to reach the upper levels of the tall bookshelves that lined the tower before clambering onto a small landing, and proceeding through a narrow door to an even narrower stone passage that wound upward to the top level of the tower. I eased the door open, worried I would interrupt Hallow in the middle of a spell or incantation, but although the scent of smoke and incense wafted through the open door to me, there was no noise from within.
I poked my head through the opening. Sunlight flowed through crescent shaped windows, making motes of dust dance in the air, and leaving warm, golden pools shimmering across the stone floor. Unlike our living quarters, this room was bare of all except a small table, a plethora of candles that had burned themselves out, and one prone arcanist, lying in the center of the circle of candles, a sheaf of papers on his chest.
His body lay still. Too still, without movement or breath.
Fear dug into me with sharp little claws of despair, sending me forward with a sob caught in my throat. “Blessed Kiriah, no!”
“Hallow, my love!” What had happened? Had his magic gone awry? Had the other arcanists done something to harm him?
I was across the floor before the last word left my lips, kneeling beside the prone form of the man who had so wholly captured my heart the year before, tears pricking painfully at my eyes when I reached a shaking hand out to him. He lay so still, his beautiful burnished hair splayed on the floor, a similar golden stubble covering his jaw and chin. “I can’t…Hallow, I can’t do this without you…goddesses of day and night, help me!”
“Hrmph?” To my utter stupefaction—followed immediately by joy, and a few seconds after that, anger—Hallow gave a little snort, rubbed his nose, then turned his head to peer at me with sleepy eyes. “What did you say?”
“You…you…” I wanted to laugh and cry and yell. I wanted to shake him, and kiss him, and strip the blue arcanist’s robes he’d donned for the communion from his body, and show him just how much I’d missed him. Instead, I grabbed the papers on his chest, and smacked them onto the top of his head. “I thought you were dead, you great oaf! Don’t you ever scare me like that again!”
“Dead? Me?” He sat up, rubbing first the top of his head, then his face. He yawned, the rat, his eyes warm despite the rich blue hue that characterized all users of arcane magic. “What made you think that?”
“You weren’t breathing.” I put my hand on his chest, over his heart, just to reassure myself. “Your chest wasn’t moving at all.”
“Of course it was. You just didn’t see it because you were too busy ogling my manly form.” He smiled, making me feel as if I had been lying out in a summer field receiving Kiriah’s warmth. Then, with a hand on the back of my neck, he pulled me forward to kiss me, murmuring against my lips, “My heart, I can’t promise that we will leave the mortal plane together, but I can swear that we will not be long parted in this world or the next.”
I allowed myself to be mollified, and would have given in to the temptation that he posed but just as I slid my hand inside the neck of his robe to stroke his chest, he leaped up, saying, “Bellias blast me to the stars and back. It’s morning?”
“Yes, and if I were any other sort of woman, I’d take umbrage with the fact that you clearly don’t want me to do more than ogle your manly form.”
He laughed and pulled me to my feet, giving me a swift kiss as well as pinching my behind. “You know full well there is nothing I would rather do than dally with you in bed…and on the green couch…and that rug with the white fur that you said tickles your legs…but there is much we need to do before the day is gone. I must have fallen asleep after dispersing the arcany that built up during the communion.”
His eyes were lit with a glint that I had once thought was him laughing at the world, but now knew was simply his joy of life. I stopped him as he headed through the door, my gaze searching the face I loved so dearly. There was an air of suppressed excitement that didn’t fool me. “You found the two stones?” I asked.
“I didn’t, but Avas located one.” He smiled again, his hands on my arms as he gave me a little squeeze. “He was passing through Ilam, and he sensed the presence of one of the stones close by.”
“Ilam?” I asked, confused. “But that’s in the High Lands of Poronne, isn’t it?”
“Aye.” His eyes positively danced with mirth. He waited, clearly expecting me to piece together the clue he’d just given me with what I knew about Exodius.
“Why would Exodius send a stone to the lands held by the Tribe of Jalas…Kiriah’s nostrils, tell me he didn’t give it to the ice queen?”
His smile turned into a cheeky grin. “One of these days, you’re going to have to get your jealousy of Lady Idril under control. And no, Exodius didn’t give it to her.”
“I’m not in any way jealous of Idril. Her life choices are not mine. The fact that she threw over Deo to marry his father is neither here nor there. If I had wanted Deo, I could have had him.”
“Yes, I’m perfectly aware that your boyfriend claimed kisses from you before I did,” Hallow said with a pointed look that was softened by the twitch of his lips.
“He was never my boyfriend,” I said automatically, then clicked my tongue in disgust. “Exodius must have given the stone to Idril’s murderous father.”
“I’m not going to comment about the methods a man must use to control as many fractious tribesmen as Jalas controls,” he said evenly, taking my hand and pulling me after him down to our tower room. “But you are correct—Avas felt a stone’s presence in Jalas’s keep.”
“That means we just have one to find if Avas retrieved Jalas’ stone.”
Silence met my statement.
“Avas did get the stone, didn’t he?” I asked, watching when Hallow, having released my hand, pulled out two stiffened leather packs from under our bed, hauling them around the screen that gave us a modicum of privacy.
“No.” The humor in his eyes faded a little when he went to the shelves that held baskets containing our clothing. “Jalas would not admit he had the stone, and when Avas tried to locate it, there was an incident with a bear.”
“A what?” I gawked at him, absently pulling out a few garments I used when we traveled: my old Bane of Eris tunic and leggings, a robe designating me as a priestess of the temple of Kiriah Sunbringer, and my one nice gown of a rich, very soft garnet velvet that Hallow had given me on the day we were wed. I had only worn it once—on the night of our wedding, and then only for a few minutes before he stripped it from me, saying it made him mad with lust—but I felt strongly that if we were going to the court of Jalas and his perfect, never ruffled daughter Idril, then by the twin goddesses, I was going to look the picture of elegance.
“Evidently Jalas has a pet bear.” Hallow stopped tossing clothing into one of the leather packs, rubbing his stubbly chin. “Avas was a bit hesitant to give details, but I gather that when he found out there was a bear guarding Jalas’s bedchamber, he shaped arcany to fool the bear, and there was…an incident.”
I stared at him, the soft folds of my velvet gown in my hands. “You can shapeshift?”
“Me? No.” He shook his head, gathering up a couple of journals and the sword that Deo’s father, Israel Langton, had given him. He strapped it to the top of the pack. “Master Wix never taught me such things. I doubt if he knew the way of it, himself. But Avas has spent much time in isolation, perfecting his abilities to shape arcany, and evidently he can don the appearance of other beings for a short time.”
I carefully folded my gown and tucked it away in my leather pack. “So he went into Jalas’s bedchamber disguised as a bear, and the other bear attacked him?”
Hallow made a choking noise, his face averted as he tucked the journals into his pack. “In a manner of speaking.”
“But…” I thought about that for a minute. “Did he disguise himself as a female bear?”
“No.” Hallow’s face was a mixture of amusement and what I assumed was sympathy for the arcanist who was helping him.
“But what did Jalas’s bear do to him if not attacking or attempting to mate?”
“Er…I didn’t actually say the latter.”
My eyes widened. “Oh. You mean…oh! I see.”
“I fervently hope you don’t, my heart,” Hallow answered, laughing now. “You are a priestess, after all.”
“Pshaw,” I said, gathering my bow and quiver. “I’m not as innocent as you think, arcanist. We have men in Temple’s Vale who prefer the company of other men to those of women. Sandor said that all were blessed in Kiriah’s eyes, although she didn’t care much for those who rutted with the temple’s sheep.”
“The goddess said that?” Hallow asked, his eyes round with surprise.
“No, Sandor did.” I added a metal girdle that was set with silver links that Sandor had given me upon leaving the temple, feeling it would go well with the velvet gown, then closed the pack, and buckled the straps. “She said it made the sheep overly skittish around the shearers.”
“I should imagine so,” Hallow said, his lips twitching again.
Silence fell for a few minutes while he finished packing, then slid into the scabbard on his back the straight black wooden staff that contained the spirit of Thorn, a previous Master.
“Mind you, she threatened to shut the sheep buggerers into a shed with one of the rams just so they could see how traumatizing it was for the ewes, but I don’t know that she ever did so. The older priests were reticent to answer my questions about that.”
“Allegria!” he said with a shout of laughter, taking me into his arms to kiss me on the nose.
“What?” I asked, wiggling against him, wondering if we had time for a little dalliance before we had to be on our way.
“You are a priestess. You shouldn’t know of such things such as men preferring sheep over women, let alone terms like ‘sheep buggerers.’ You, my love, are incorrigible.”
“I like to think of it as being curious. And that same curiosity is prodding me to ask if we’re leaving immediately to sail to Aryia, or if we have time for me to make sure that your exposure to intensive arcany last night hasn’t caused you any bodily harm.” I waggled my eyebrows at him.
He glanced behind me toward the screen and bed. “I had intended for us to be on our way as soon as Kiriah graced us with light, but perhaps I should have you check. So long as you let me check you over, as well.”
His hands were roaming as he spoke, sliding the bow and quiver from me and unbuckling the scabbard I wore on my back.
“I would appreciate that,” I told him, my breath catching in my throat when the warmth of his hands seeped through my linen tunic.
His head bent toward mine, his breath hot on my mouth when all of a sudden he swore and jerked backward, spinning around to glare at the window. “Kiriah’s bane on him!”
“No,” I said on a whimper. “Don’t tell me.”
“I’m sorry, my heart,” he said, handing me my scabbard before pulling the straight black staff from his back and holding it out.
A little breeze ruffled my hair when a small black swallow darted through the window, circled us both three times, then landed on the top of the staff. The bird—like the staff itself—was made of wood.
Thorn had returned.
I sighed, wondering how long it would take Hallow to find some other mission upon which he could send Thorn. Although the former Master of Kelos meant well, he drove Hallow nigh on to madness with his inane chatter, demands, and orders about how to run both Kelos, and the arcanists themselves.
“Yes, I heard you.” Hallow slid the staff into place on his back before turning an apologetic glance to me. I shrugged, knowing that Thorn was chattering away at Hallow, even if only he could hear the spirit’s voice. “Yes, she does look annoyed, but it wasn’t I who annoyed her. Thorn offers you greetings, Allegria.”
“Hello, Thorn,” I said, trying to look less sexually frustrated than I felt.
Hallow heaved up one of the packs onto his shoulder and reached for mine. I let him take it, collecting my bow and quiver, as well as gathering up some bread and fruit in a clean cloth. I followed him down the stairs, and out of the tower, smiling to myself despite the way the morning had turned out. It always amused me to listen to Hallow deal with Thorn’s excited chatter.
“No, I’m not going to take down in writing what you have to report. We don’t need to have a permanent record of your words. If that happens, and I find it difficult to believe that vast herds of arcanists down through the ages will be lusting for a record of your every word as you think they will, then I will take responsibility for their anger. No, I am not going to employ a scribe so that I can dictate your words to him. It’s not about the coin that it would cost…Thorn, Allegria is a priestess, a lightweaver, and a former Bane of Eris. She is not going to become your scribe either. For the love of the goddesses, just tell me what you found in Starfall.”
As we hauled the packs out to a small cart, Hallow murmured to me to tether Buttercup to the back while he fetched Penn, his gelding, all the while dealing with Thorn’s obviously non-stop liturgy of demands, comments, and information.
“Right. I will. No, she isn’t mad at you; she would simply like to be able to talk to me, and she can’t do that if you’re talking. Yes, well, she doesn’t know how lucky she is that she can’t hear you. That wasn’t a slur…for the love of the stars and moons above, go! I don’t care where you go, just go before my mind snaps!” Hallow, who had tied his hair back in a leather thong, had run his hands through it so many times in the last fifteen minutes that tendrils flickered in the slight breeze. Thorn rose off the staff, plopped onto his head, making a rude gesture with his wooden hindquarters, then flew off to the north.
“I’m sorry,” Hallow said, turning to me. “He was worse than usual.”
“He just gets excited about things,” I said with a little shrug, deftly avoiding Buttercup’s teeth when I tossed a couple of water skins into the back of the cart. She liked to nip at things whenever she felt she was being taken advantage of, which was basically any time that did not include a meal. “Did he have any news from Darius?”
“Yes.” Hallow’s expression darkened as he backed Penn up into the cart shafts. Penn usually objected to such demeaning work as pulling a cart, but he had clearly been bored by his enforced inactivity and suffered himself to be harnessed. “He’s reforming the Starborn army.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” I wondered about the little frown between Hallow’s brows.
He hesitated, absently stroking Penn’s neck. “Under normal circumstances, yes, it would be good.”
“What’s not normal?” I asked, confused. “You weren’t happy when he let the army of Starborn—an army that you, yourself, rounded up and organized—scatter to the winds earlier this year. So why are you frowning now?”
His gaze held mine, the shiny blue of his eyes now pale, just as if they were frosted over. “Thorn says the army he’s building isn’t in service of the Starborn, or of the queen. It’s his own army. He’s declared the queen dead, and himself king in her place.”