Monday, September 14, 2009

Dawnthief (Chronicles of the Raven) by James Barclay

The Raven: six men and an elf, sword for hire in the wars that have torn apart Balaia. For years their loyalty has been only to themselves and their code. But, that time is over. The Wytch Lords have escaped and The Raven find themselves fighting for the Dark College of magic, searching for the location of Dawnthief. It is a spell created to end the world, and it must be cast if any of them are to survive. Dawnthief is a fast paced epic about a band of all-too-human heroes.

RT Book Reviews gives Dawnthief 4 stars and calls it a "compelling page-turner" and "a thoroughly fun read from beginning to end,” while SFX calls it "action fantasy at its best.” Check out the excerpt below to decide for yourself...





Dawnthief
Chronicles of the Raven
James Barclay


Prologue

The hand over her mouth stifled her screams as she awoke. Beside her in the bed, Alun was still. A face, shadowed by night, leaned into hers. She could make out his lean features and hard eyes. The hand pressed harder as her eyes bored into his.

“If you cast, your boys will die. If you struggle, your boys will die. If you don’t cooperate, your boys will die. Your husband will remain as witness that we can take your kind from anywhere—even from the heart of a College City. Think on that while you sleep and curb your anger when you awake. We have a great deal to talk about.”

The thoughts crashed through her mind in time with the hammering of her heart. Her foolish determination to live a quiet life outside of the security of the College walls had put in jeopardy everything she loved. The man had mentioned her boys, her beautiful twin sons in whom she had so much faith and nurtured such great power. So young, so innocent. Her body quailed as she fought against the thought of what men such as these might do. They had no compassion. They saw what they believed to be evil and had vowed to destroy it. They didn’t see the purity and the magic of what she was creating and their blindness made them so dangerous.

Voices struck notes of caution in her mind. The Masters of the College, who had sympathised with her desire for family life but had warned against the complacency of comfort in times when people could be open in their animosity toward the College and all for which it stood. Hers was an experiment, the Masters had reminded her; it was not a simple desire to settle down. Her children were children of the College, they had said, and their development was critical research.
But, as usual, she had had her way. After all, they were her sons and Alun had no wish to live in the College. She cursed herself for her stubborn stupidity and for her overconfidence in her ability to keep them all safe. Tears of frustration and anger welled up but they, like the voices of the Masters in her head, were echoes of warnings that were ignored too long and were heeded too late.

The man’s other hand came across her vision. It was clutching a cloth which he pressed against her nose and mouth. The drug took swift effect and her struggle was that of an animal caught in a trap as the dogs close in. Futile, desperate, short. Brophane. The last thought through her mind was how ill she would feel when she opened her eyes.


Chapter 1

Blue light seared across the late afternoon sky, flaring against the broken low grey cloud and throwing the sheer opening of Taranspike Pass into sharp relief. A heavy explosion sounded. Men screamed.

The Raven made a calm assessment of the situation, looking out from the castle which controlled the pass, across the courtyard and on to the battlefield from their vantage point high up on the keep.

The left-hand end of the defensive line had been shattered. Bodies, burning and broken, were scattered across scorched grass and the enemy redoubled their efforts all along the battle front. They surged.

“Damn it,” said The Unknown Warrior. “Trouble.” He raised a clenched fist above his head, spread his fingers then whirled his arm in a wide circle. Instantly, the flagmen in the turrets signalled the order. Five cavalrymen and a mage galloped out of a side gate.

“There. Look.” Hirad pointed toward the devastated line. Perhaps fifteen men were running through the gap, ignoring the battle as they rushed toward the castle walls. “Are we in?” he asked.

“We’re in,” said The Unknown.

“About time.” Hirad smiled.

“Raven!” roared The Unknown. “Raven with me!” He swept his two-handed sword from the scabbard leaning against the ramparts and charged over to the steps, chest plate catching the dying rays of the sun, his massive frame moving with a speed and agility that remained a fatal surprise to many and his shaven head bobbing on his bull neck as he started down at a dead run.
The stairs led down from the ramparts along the inside of the wall before joining the roof of the keep. From there the way to the courtyard was through either one of the two turrets and down their spiral stairways.

The Unknown led the six leather- and chain-clad warriors and one mage who made up The Raven to the left-hand turret, threw the door open, barked the guard aside and took the stairs two at a time, leaning into the outside wall to steady himself.

Halfway down, a second, bigger explosion sounded, shaking the castle ­foundations.

“They’re through the courtyard wall,” said Hirad.

“Almost there,” said The Unknown. The door at the base of the turret was open and Hirad doubted whether The Unknown would have paused had it been closed, such was his speed. The Raven sprinted out into the waning amber sunlight and headed for the left-hand corner of the courtyard where dust from the explosion filled the air.

From the fog of the dust, and picking their way through the rubble they’d created, came the enemy. The warriors, leather armoured and cloth masked, spread into the courtyard. Behind them, Hirad could see another making his way through the debris, seemingly at leisure. He too was wearing shining leather armour but also a black cloak that billowed behind him. A pipe smoked gently in his mouth and, if Hirad’s eyes didn’t deceive him, he was stroking a cat whose head poked out from the neck of the cloak.

Behind him, he heard Ilkar, the elven mage from Julatsa, curse and spit: “Xetesk.” Hirad paused in his stride and glanced back. Ilkar waved him on.

“Get on and fight,” said the elf, his tall, athletically slim frame tense, his flat-oval hazel eyes narrowed beneath short dark hair. “I’ll keep an eye on him.

”The enemy fighting men began to move to The Raven’s left at an even pace, trotting toward the bare rock wall along the base of which grain, tool and firewood sheds ran from outer defences to keep.

The Unknown Warrior immediately changed direction, cutting off the new approach. Hirad frowned, unable to take his eyes from the solitary black-cloaked figure behind the swordsmen.

The sounds of battle from outside the wall began to fade as Hirad focused on the task ahead. Seeing them, the enemy, who outnumbered The Raven by almost three to one, moved to intercept. Five warriors were ahead of the main group, running on, swords held high, shouts ringing from the walls as they came, confident in their numerical superiority.

“Form up!” shouted The Unknown, and The Raven switched seamlessly into their fighting line as they advanced. As always, The Unknown himself took the centre of a slight-angled and uneven chevron. To his left ranged Talan, Ras and Richmond and to his right, Sirendor and Hirad. Behind them, Ilkar prepared the defensive shield.

The Unknown tapped the point of his two-handed blade rhythmically on the ground with each pace and Hirad, searching for recognition in the eyes of their adversaries, bared his teeth as he found it, noting the ghost of a break in their stride.

“Shield up,” said Ilkar. It sent a shiver through Hirad even now, ten years on. And the reality was that he couldn’t actually feel anything. But it was there; a net of security from magical attack, a momentary shimmering in the air. The Unknown ceased tapping his sword point, and a beat later, The Raven joined battle.

The Unknown brought his sword up in a right-to-left arc, making a nonsense of his opponent’s defence. The man’s blade was knocked aside and his face split from chin to forehead, blood spraying up from The Unknown’s weapon as it exited.

The man was hurled backward, crashing into two of his colleagues, not even raising a scream as he died.

To the right, Sirendor caught a blow on his kite shield before sweeping his sword through the enemy’s ribcage and Hirad evaded a clumsy overhead with ease, swaying right then jabbing two-handed into the neck of his opponent. Others were hesitant to fill the gap. The barbarian fighting man grinned and stepped forward, beckoning them on with a hand.

To The Unknown’s left, the going was less straightforward. Ras and Talan were trading blows with competent shield-bearing warriors while Richmond, distracted, was on the defensive, his quick, fluid strikes causing his enemy great difficulty nonetheless.

“Spellcaster moving. Our left,” he said. He parried a blow to his midriff and shoved his opponent back.

“I have him,” said Ilkar, his voice distant with the effort of maintaining the shield. “He’s casting.”
“Leave him to Ilkar,” ordered The Unknown. His blade thudded against the shield of an enemy. The man staggered.

“Still moving left,” said Richmond.“Leave him.” The big man slashed open the stomach of the man in front of him as Talan, immediately adjacent, finished his first victim, taking a cut on his arm.

The enemy mage barked a command word. Heat scorched the air and in the moment’s ensuing silence, both sides paused, falling back half a pace.

“Ward!” yelled the mage, and buildings along the back wall exploded, clouding the air with splinters and hurling broken planks to spin and tumble across the courtyard.

Chaos.

Half a plank thumped into Hirad’s standing foot. His balance gone, he sprawled forward, trying to turn on to his back even as he fell. To his left, The Unknown took the force of the explosion on his broad back with barely a flinch. Thundering his blade through waist high, he cut the man in front of him clear through to the spine.

“Shield down!” shouted Ilkar. The shock of the detonation had pitched him to the dirt, breaking his concentration. He was up on his feet immediately. “I’ll take the mage.”

“I’ve got him.” Richmond, who had all but fallen into his opponent’s arms, recovered the quicker of the two and rammed his sword into the man’s midriff. He turned from the battle.

“Stay in line!” roared The Unknown. “Richmond, stay in line!”

Hirad was staring straight into the eyes of the man who was about to kill him. Hardly believing his luck, the man swung his sword toward the helpless barbarian but the blow never reached its target. Instead, it clattered against a kite shield. Legs straddled Hirad, and Sirendor’s sword uppercut into the man’s neck. Sirendor stooped and helped Hirad clear.

The half dozen paces Richmond took away from the line before he realised his error were fatal. Ras, engaged with one man, was not aware that his left flank was totally exposed. Seizing his chance, the second enemy stepped quickly around his companion and buried his sword in the Raven warrior’s side.

Ras grunted and collapsed, clutching at the wound as blood soaked through his armour, falling against Talan’s legs with enough force to unbalance his friend. Talan just about defended one strike but was in no position to avoid the next.

“Shit!” rasped The Unknown. He set his blade horizontally across Talan’s path, fielding two blows aimed at the struggling warrior, and kicked out straight with his right foot, connecting with his opponent’s lower abdomen.

Richmond crashed back into the battle. At the same time, Talan recovered to stand across the stricken Raven man, skewering another enemy through the chest and wrenching his blade free, the man’s screams turning to gurgles as he drowned in his own blood.

And behind the battle, Ilkar could only watch as the Xetesk mage, running toward the wall he’d exposed by destroying the wooden buildings, paused, turned to him, smiled, said one word and disappeared on his next pace forward.

Ilkar gritted his teeth and switched his attention back to the fight. Ras was lying curled and motionless. The Unknown hacked down another man, and to his right, Sirendor and Hirad killed with practised efficiency. Only Richmond’s blade flailed, the whole set of his body giving away his feelings. Ilkar strode forward, forming the mana shape for a holding spell. It was enough. The remains of the enemy unit saw him, disengaged and ran back the way they had come.“

Forget them,” said The Unknown as Hirad made to chase the fleeing enemy. The barbarian stopped and watched them go, hearing the jeers of the castle garrison help them on their way. Elsewhere, cheers rose from the ramparts as horns sounded retreat across the battle ground.

For The Raven, though, victory was hollow.

A pool of silence spread across the courtyard from where they stood, and as it reached out, others fell quiet, turning to see what few had ever seen. When Hirad looked around, all but Ilkar were crouched by Ras. Hirad joined them.

He opened his mouth to ask the question but swallowed his words hard. Ras, his hands still clamped to the horrible wound in his side, was not breathing.

“All day sitting around and now this,” said Hirad. “We’re never taking a reserve force job again.”

"I don’t think this is the time or the place for this discussion,” said The Unknown softly. He was aware of a crowd beginning to gather.

“Why not?” Hirad rose, arm muscles bunching beneath his heavy padded leather armour, his braided russet hair bouncing as he jerked to his feet. He jammed his sword back into its scabbard. “How much more evidence do we bloody well need? If you spend a day up on the ramparts you aren’t sharp enough when it comes to the fight.”

“There’s a few here that wouldn’t agree with you,” snapped The Unknown, gesturing at the slain enemy.

“We’ve lost three men in ten years, all of them in contracts we shouldn’t have taken on. We should be hired to fight, not to sit around watching others do it.”

“This was a good money contract,” said Ilkar.

“Do you think Ras cares?” shouted Hirad.

“I—” began Ilkar. He put a hand to his head, his eyes losing focus. He squeezed The Unknown’s shoulder.

“This discussion and the Vigil will have to wait. The mage is still in here,” he said. The Raven were on their feet in a moment, each man ready.

“Where?” growled Hirad. “He’s a dead man.”

“I can’t see him,” said Ilkar. “He’s under a CloakedWalk. He’s close by, though. I can sense the mana shape.”

“Great,” said Sirendor. “Sitting targets.” His grip tightened on the hilt of his blade.

“We’re all right. He’ll have to lose the Cloak before he casts again. I just want to know what he’s doing here.” Ilkar’s face was set, his frown deep.

Hirad switched his gaze up to the keep and round the ramparts. A closing of the cloud hastened the setting of the sun and the fading light washed grey across the castle. A light rain had begun to fall. All activity had ceased and a hundred eyes stared at The Raven and at the body they encircled. Taranspike Castle was quiet, and even as victorious soldiers walked back into the courtyard, their voices caught and faded when they saw the scene.

The Raven’s circle moved gradually outward, with Ilkar separate from it, always with one eye on the newly exposed wall.

“How could he miss us with that spell?” asked Talan, indicating the debris of wood and grain scattered about them. “He was practically standing on top of us.”

“He couldn’t,” replied Ilkar. “That’s why I’m—”

The mage was by the wall. He had blinked into view with both his hands on it. They probed briefly and a section of the wall moved back and left, revealing a dark passageway. The mage stepped into it and immediately the opening closed.

Ilkar ran to the wall and examined the section minutely, the others crowding around him.

“Open it, then,” said Hirad. The elf turned to stare at the barbarian, his leaf-shaped ears, pointed at the top, pricking in irritation.

“Can you open it?” asked Talan.

Ilkar nodded. “I’ll have to cast, though. I can’t see the pressure points otherwise.” He switched his attention back to the wall and the rest of The Raven gave him space. Closing his eyes, Ilkar spoke a short incantation, moving his hands over the wall in front of him, feeling the mana trails sheath his fingers. Now he placed his fingertips on the stonework, searching. One after another, his fingers stopped moving, finding their marks.

“Got it,” he said. No more than half a minute had passed. The Unknown nodded.

“Good,” he said. “But you—” he indicated the stocky figure of Talan, his short brown hair matted with sweat and the old scar on his left cheek burning bright through his tanned skin—“stay and get that cut seen to, and you—” spitting the words at Richmond—“start the Vigil and think on what you’ve done.”

There was a brief silence. Talan considered objecting but the blood dripping from his arm, and his drained face, told of a bad wound. Richmond walked over to Ras, sighting down his long thin nose, tears in his pinched blue eyes. He folded his tall frame to kneel by the body of the Raven warrior, his sword in front of him, its point in the dirt and his hands clasped about the hilt guard. He bowed his head and was motionless, his long blond ponytail playing gently in the breeze. It was he, along with Talan and Ras, who had joined The Raven as an already established and respected trio four years earlier, after the only other battle that had seen the death of a Raven warrior; in this case, two of them.

The Unknown Warrior came to Ilkar’s shoulder.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

“Right,” said Ilkar. He pushed. The wall moved back and left. “It’ll stay open. He must have closed it from the inside.”

There was light at the end of the passageway, wan and flickering. The Unknown trotted into the passage, Hirad and Sirendor right behind him and Ilkar bringing up the rear.

As The Unknown Warrior moved toward the light, a shout of terror, abruptly cut off, was followed by a voice, urgent and loud, and the scrabbling of feet. The Unknown increased his pace.
Rounding a sharp right-hand corner he found himself in a small room, bed to the right, desk opposite and firelight streaming in from a short passage to the left. Slumped by the desk, and in front of an opening, was a middle-aged man dressed in plain blue robes. A long cut on his creased forehead dripped blood into his long-fingered hands and he stared at the splashes, shuddering continuously.

With The Raven in the room behind him, The Unknown knelt by the man.

“Where did he go?” Nothing. Not even recognition he was there. “The mage? In the black cloak?”

“Gods above!” Ilkar elbowed his way to the man. “It’s the castle mage.” The Unknown nodded. Ilkar picked up the man’s face. The blood from his wound trickled over gaunt white features. His eyes flickered everywhere, taking in everything and seeing nothing.

“Seran, it’s Ilkar. Do you hear me?” The eyes steadied for a second. It was enough. “Seran, where did the Xeteskian go? We want him.” Seran managed to look half over his shoulder to the opening. He tried to speak but nothing came out except the letter “d” stuttered over and over.

“Hold on,” said Sirendor. “Shouldn’t that wall let back on to—”

“Come on,” said The Unknown. “We’re losing him the longer we wait.”

“Right,” said Hirad. He led The Raven through the opening, down a short corridor and into a small, bare chamber. In the dim light from Seran’s study, he could see a door facing him.

He moved to the door and pulled it open on to another, longer passage, the end of which was illuminated by a flickering glow. He glanced behind him.

“Come on,” he said, and broke into a run down the passage. As he approached the end, he could see a large fire burning in a grate set into the wall opposite. Sprinting into the chamber, he glanced quickly left and right. There was a pair of doors in the right-hand wall perhaps twenty feet away, set either side of a second, unlit fireplace. One of them was swinging slowly shut.

“There!” he pointed and changed direction, not waiting to see if any were following. His prey was close.

Hirad skidded to a stop before the door and wrenched it open, stepping back to look before dashing in. It was a small antechamber, set with massive arched double doors opposite. They carried a crest, half on each side. The walls were covered in runic language; braziers lit the scene. Hirad ignored it all: one of the big doors was just ajar and a glittering light came from inside. The barbarian smiled.

“Come to Daddy,” he breathed as he ran through the gap and into the chamber beyond.

“Hirad, wait!” shouted Sirendor as he, Ilkar and The Unknown raced into the larger chamber.

“Get after that idiot, Sirendor,” ordered The Unknown. “Time to take stock, I think.”

Above the fire hung a round metal plate, fully three feet across. On it was embossed the head and talons of a dragon. The mouth was wide, dripping fire, and the claws open and grasping. Otherwise, the room was bare of ornament. The Unknown moved toward it, half an eye on Sirendor as the warrior hurried toward the door through which Hirad had chased. He stopped suddenly, glanced behind him and frowned.

“What is it?” asked Ilkar.

“This isn’t right,” said The Unknown. “Unless I’ve gone badly wrong, this ought to be the kitchens and that end of this room—” he pointed right to the two doors flanking the unlit fire—“should be in the courtyard.”

“Well, we must be under it,” said Ilkar.

“We haven’t gone down,” said The Unknown. “What do you think?” But Ilkar wasn’t paying attention to him any more. He was staring at the crest over the fire, his face paling.

“That symbol. I know it.” Ilkar walked over to the fire, The Unknown trailing him.

“What is it?”

“It’s the Dragonene crest. Heard of it?”

“A few rumours.” The Unknown shrugged. “So what?”

“And you say we should be standing in the courtyard?”

“Well, yes, I think so but . . . ?”

Ilkar swallowed hard. “Gods, we’d better not have done what I think we’ve done.”

It was the size of the hall he entered that first slowed Hirad’s advance, and the heat that assailed him the moment he was inside. Next it was the odour, very strong, of wood and oil. Pervasive and with a sharp quality. And finally, the huge pair of eyes regarding him from the opposite side of the room that brought him to a complete standstill.

“Gods, Hirad, calm down!” Sirendor yanked open the door to the right of the fireplace and ran inside, seeing the crested double doors in front of him. He pulled up sharply, the dark-cloaked mage appearing suddenly before him. He raised his sword reflexively and took a pace backward, realising the mage’s abrupt appearance was caused by the dispersal of a CloakedWalk spell. Probably in his late thirties, the mage would normally have been handsome beneath his tousled black hair and unkempt short beard, but now he looked pale and frightened. He held out his hands, palms outward.

“Please,” he whispered. “I couldn’t stop him, but I can stop you.”

“You’re responsible for the death of one of The Raven—”

“And I don’t want another one to die, believe me. The barbarian—”

“Where is he?” demanded Sirendor.

“Don’t raise your voice. Look, he’s in trouble,” said the mage. There was movement in his cloak. A cat’s head appeared briefly at its neck then disappeared once more. “You’re Sirendor, aren’t you? Sirendor Larn.” Sirendor, standing still once again, nodded. The mage continued. “And I am Denser. Look, I know what you’re feeling but we can help each other right now and, believe me, your friend needs help.”

“What kind of trouble is he in?” Sirendor’s voice was low too. He didn’t know why, but something about the mage’s attitude worried him. He should kill the man where he stood but he was obviously scared by something other than the prospect of death at a Raven warrior’s hand.

“Bad. Very bad. See for yourself.” He put a finger to his lips and beckoned Sirendor to him. The warrior moved forward, never taking his eyes from the mage nor the slightly shifting bulge on one side of his cloak. Denser motioned Sirendor to look through the doors.

“Great Gods above!” He made a move to go in but the mage restrained him with a hand on the shoulder. Sirendor turned sharply.

“Take your hand off me. Right now.” The mage did.

“You can’t help him by rushing in.”

“Well, what can we do?” hissed Sirendor.

“I’m not sure.” Denser shrugged. “I might be able to do something. You might as well get your friends. They won’t find anything out there and they could prove useful in here.”

Sirendor paused in the act of heading for the door. “Nothing stupid, you understand? If he dies because of you . . .”

Denser nodded. “I’ll wait.”

“See that you do.” Sirendor left the antechamber at a sprint, not realising he was about to confirm all of Ilkar’s fears.

Hirad would have run, only he’d come too far into the room, and anyway, he didn’t think his legs would support him, they were shaking that badly. He just stood and stared.

The Dragon’s head was resting on its front claws and the first coherent thought that entered Hirad’s mind was that from the bottom of its lower jaw to the top of its head, it was getting on for as tall as he was. The mouth itself must have been more than three feet across, the whole muzzle probably five in depth. Those eyes sat atop, and at the base of, the muzzle. They were close set, rimmed with thick horn, and the pupils were narrow black slits, ringed in a startling blue. A pronounced ridge of bone ran away over the Dragon’s head toward its spine, and Hirad could see the mound of its body behind it, huge and shining.

As he watched, it carefully unfurled its wings and the reason for the size of the room became all too obvious. With their roots at the top of the torso, above the front limbs, the wings stretched to what must have been forty feet on either side, and flapped lazily. With the balance afforded by them, the Dragon picked its head from the floor and stood upright.

Even with its slender, bone-edged neck arched so its eyes never left Hirad, it towered sixty feet into the hall. Its tail curled away to the left and was thicker than a man’s body even at its tip. Stretched out, the Dragon would surely have been well in excess of one hundred and twenty feet in length, but now it rested on two massive rear limbs, each foot carrying a quartet of claws bigger than the barbarian’s head. And it was gold, all over—skin glistening in the firelight and sparkling on the walls.

Hirad could hear its breathing, slow and deep. It opened its mouth wide, revealing long rows of fangs, and saliva dripped to the floor to evaporate on contact.

It raised a forelimb, single hooked claw extended. Hirad took an involuntary pace backward. He swallowed hard, sweat suddenly covering his body. He was quaking from head to foot.

“Fuck me,” he breathed.

Hirad had always believed that he’d die with his sword in his hand but, in the moments before the huge claw dismembered him, it seemed such a futile gesture. A calmness replaced the instant’s fury that had itself so quickly followed his fear, and he sheathed his blade and looked straight into the creature’s eyes.

The blow never came. Instead, the Dragon retracted its claw, unarched its neck and moved its head down and forward, coming to a stop no more than three paces from Hirad, hot, sour breath firing into his face.

“Interesting,” it said in a voice that echoed through Hirad’s entire being. The barbarian’s legs finally gave way and he sat heavily on the tiled floor. His mouth was wide, his jaws were moving but no sound came.

“Now,” said the Dragon. “Let us talk about a few things.”


Chapter 2

“Who are these Dragonene, then?” hissed Sirendor.Ilkar turned to him. “All mages. They have, I don’t know, an affinity, you know, with Dragons.” He gestured uselessly.

“No, I don’t bloody know! Dragons don’t exist. They are just rumour and myth.” Sirendor’s voice was still barely more than a whisper.

“Oh yeah? Well that’s one hell of a big myth I can see in there!” Ilkar’s ears pricked.

“Does it really matter?” The Unknown’s voice, though quiet, still carried all its power. “We only have one question that needs answering now.”

The Raven trio and Denser were all crowded around the partially open door to the Dragon’s chamber, animosity forgotten for a while. Hirad sat with his back to them, his hands on the floor behind his back, and his legs drawn half up. The Dragon’s head was scant feet from the barbarian’s, the huge mound of its body resting on the ground, its wings folded. It was the scale of it all that Ilkar found so hard to take in.

Never mind that he had only half believed the books and the teaching. He had still imagined Dragons and he imagined they would be big; but Hirad looked so tiny in comparison that he had to look away and back before he decided that Sirendor was wrong and they weren’t seeing an illusion. And he still didn’t really believe it.

“He should be dead,” muttered The Unknown, his hands tightening and untightening around the hilt of his sword. “Why hasn’t it killed him?”

“We think they’re talking,” said Denser.

“What?” Ilkar couldn’t hear a thing. As far as he was concerned they were just staring at each other. But as Ilkar watched, his powerful eyes giving the scene complete clarity, Hirad shook his head and straightened his back so he could use his hands to make a gesture. He indicated behind him and said something but the mage couldn’t pick out the words. The Dragon cocked its head to one side and opened its mouth, revealing the massed ranks of its fangs. Liquid dripped to the floor and Hirad started.

“What do you mean, ‘we’?” demanded Sirendor. Denser didn’t reply.

“Later, Sirendor,” said The Unknown. “We have to think of something to do. Quickly.”

“What the hell can they be talking about?” No one had an answer. Ilkar looked back to the unreal scene in the huge chamber and a glint caught his eye. For a moment he assumed it was a reflection off the Dragon’s beautiful scales but it wasn’t a golden colour, more a steel or a silver.

He stared hard, using all the range that his eyes afforded him, and there it was: a small disc, maybe a palm’s width across and attached to a chain which seemed to be caught around one of the Dragon’s large hind-foot claws. He pointed it out to Denser.

“Where?” asked the other mage.

“Its right foot, third talon along.” Ilkar pointed the way. Denser shook his head.

“Those are good eyes, aren’t they? Hold on.” Denser mumbled a few words and rubbed a thumb on either eye. He looked again and tensed.

“What is it? Don’t try to—”

“Just pray Hirad keeps it talking,” said Denser, and he began mumbling again.

“What are you talking about?” hissed Ilkar. “What have you seen?”

“Trust me. I can save him,” said Denser. “And just be ready to run.” He took a pace forward and disappeared.

“Look, this is really hard for me to take in,” said Hirad. The Dragon put its head on one side and stretched its jaws a little. A line of saliva dripped from a fang and Hirad moved his leg reflexively to avoid it.

“Explain,” ordered the Dragon, the word bypassing the barbarian’s ears on its way to thump through his skull.

“Well, you have to understand that never in my wildest drunken dreams did I ever imagine I’d be sitting and talking to a—a Dragon.” He gestured and raised his eyebrows. “I mean I . . .” He trailed off. The Dragon flared its nostrils and Hirad felt his hair move in the breeze of its breath. He had to fight himself not to gag at the smell, rotten with that burned sourness.

“And now?” it asked.

“I’m absolutely terrified.” Hirad felt cold. He was still shivering intermittently and he felt as though his sweat was freezing on his body, yet the room was hot, very hot. Large fires crackled and snapped in ten grates set around the far half of the hall, surrounding the Dragon on three sides, and the beast himself was sitting in what looked like soft wet mud. He rested back on his hands once again.

“Fear is healthy. As is knowing when you are beaten. That is why you are still alive.” The Dragon twitched its left wing. “So, tell me, what are you doing here?”

“We were chasing someone. He came in here.”

“Yes, I thought that you would not be by yourself. Who were you chasing?”

The barbarian couldn’t help but smile; the whole situation was getting quite beyond him. Although he was, he was sure, talking to a beast he had only heard of in rumour, he couldn’t dispel the idea that it was all some kind of illusion. Something with a sensible explanation, anyway.

“A mage. His men killed one of my friends. We want him . . . have you . . . seen anyone?” said Hirad. It was simply too much. “Look, I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble even believing you exist.”

The Dragon laughed, or at least it was a sound that Hirad thought was laughter. It boomed around his skull like waves striking a cliff and he juddered and closed his eyes as the pain that followed smashed at his brain. And then those fangs were inches from his face and the nostrils blew gouts of hot air into his eyes. Hirad started violently but before he could experience the shock of the Dragon’s speed of movement, it twitched its head up, catching him on the point of his jaw. He was hurled backward to slide across the tiles, coming to rest, dazed. He sat up and massaged his chin, blood running from a deep graze.

“And now, little man, do you still have trouble believing I exist?”

“I . . . No, I don’t think so . . .”

“And nor you should. Seran believes in me, although he has failed me now. And your friends beyond that door. I am sure they believe.” The Dragon’s voice inside his head was louder now. Hirad got to his feet and walked toward the beast, shaking his head to clear his mind of the fog that encased it.

“Yes, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend.” Hirad’s heart was pounding in his throat once more. Another sound from the Dragon. Perhaps another laugh, but this time it sounded dismissive, somehow.

“But you questioned my very existence,” said the Dragon. “Perhaps you are lucky that I am slow to offend. Or perhaps that I am slow to question yours.” Hirad tried to slow his breathing and think, but there seemed to be no way out. The only question remaining was how long before the Dragon tired of the game and snuffed out his life.

“Yes.” Hirad shrugged and waited to die. “But you must understand that you were the last thing I expected to find here.”

“Ah.” Feelings of amusement arose in Hirad’s mind. “Then I have disappointed you. Perhaps I should be apologising to you.” The Dragon laughed again. More quietly this time, more in thought than in mirth.

There was a faint rustling by Hirad’s left ear, then a voice, just audible:

“Don’t react to my voice and don’t say anything. I am Denser, the man you are after, and I’m trying to help you.” He paused. “So when I say run, run hard. Don’t argue and don’t look back.”

“Now, little man. Ask me a question.”

“What?” Hirad blinked and returned his attention to the Dragon, amazed that he could forget, however momentarily, that it was there.

“Ask. There must be something you want to know about me.” The Dragon withdrew its head somewhat, its neck arching high above the mound of its body.

“All right then. Why didn’t you kill me?”

“Because your reaction in putting up your sword set you as different from other men I have encountered. It made you interesting, and very few humans are interesting.”

“If you say so. So what are you doing here?”

“Resting. Recovering. I am safe here.”

Hirad frowned. “Safe from what?” The Dragon shifted. Moving its hind feet slightly further apart, it placed its head on the floor once more and stared deep into Hirad’s eyes, blinking slowly.

“My world is at war. We are devastating our lands and there is no end in sight. When we need to recover our strength we use safe havens like this.”

“And where exactly is this?” Hirad’s gaze took in the high roof and the scale of the chamber.

“At least you have the sense to know you are not in your own dimension.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about with dimensions. I’m sorry. All I know is that Taranspike Castle does not have a room this size.”

The Dragon chuckled again. “So simple. If only you knew the effort it took for you to stand here.” It lifted its head slightly and shook it from side to side, closing its eyes. It spoke again without opening them. “The moment you left Seran’s chambers, you entered a robing room. That room is not placed in any one dimension, neither is this chamber nor the prayer chamber you also must have seen. If you like, this is a corridor between dimensions, yours and mine. Its existence is reliant on the fabric of your dimension remaining intact.” Now the head raced in again, the Dragon’s wings bracing slightly to compensate for the sudden movement. “My Brood serve as protectors for your world, keeping you from the attentions of enemy Broods and withholding from you that which should never have been created.”

“Why do you bother?”

“Do not think it is for any liking of your insignificant peoples. Very few of you are worthy of our respect. It is simply that if we allowed you the means to destroy yourselves and you succeeded in so doing, we would lose our haven forever. That is also why the door to your world is kept closed. Other Broods might otherwise choose to travel here to rule.”

Hirad thought on that for a moment. “So what you’re saying is that you hold the future for all of us.”

The Dragon raised the bone ridges that served as its eyebrows. “That is certainly one conclusion you could reach. Now—what is your name?”

“Hirad Coldheart.”

“And I am Sha-Kaan. You are strong, Hirad Coldheart. I was right to spare you and speak to you and I will know you again. But now I must have rest. Take your companions and go. The entrance will be sealed behind you. You will never find me again, though I may find you. As for Seran, I will have to find another to serve me. I have no time for a Dragonene who cannot secure my sanctuary.”

It took the barbarian several heartbeats to take in what he had just heard and he still didn’t believe it. “You’re letting me go?”

“Why not?”

“Run. Hirad. Run now.”

The Dragon’s head swept from the floor at speed, eyes ablaze, searching for the source of the new sound. But Denser remained invisible. Hirad hesitated.

“Run!” Denser shouted, the voice some way to Hirad’s left.

The barbarian looked up at Sha-Kaan and their eyes met for an instant. He saw raw fury. “Oh, no,” he breathed. The Dragon broke eye contact to look down at its right hind foot. Hirad turned and ran.

“NO!” Now Sha-Kaan’s voice was there for all to hear, and it echoed from the walls. “Give back what you have taken from me!”

“Over here!” shouted Denser, and as Hirad glanced right, the mage appeared briefly some thirty paces right along the wall from the double doors. The Dragon cocked its head and breathed in his direction, fire scorching a wall, rolling up to the ceiling and incinerating wood and tapestry, but Denser had already disappeared. An oppressive wave of heat washed over Hirad. He stumbled, crying out, gasping momentarily for breath, the roar of the flame and its detonation in the air shaking him to his core. The entire hall seemed to be ablaze; the sweat beaded on his face. Through the smoke and burning threads of tapestry he saw The Unknown appear at the door, holding it open for him. A shadow passed through it and then he heard the Dragon rise to its feet. The Unknown paled visibly.

“Run, Hirad. Run!” he screamed. The Dragon took a pace forward, and then another, Hirad feeling the ground shudder beneath its feet.

“Bring back what you have stolen!” it boomed. Hirad made the door.

“Close it!” shouted The Unknown. He and Sirendor leant their weights against it. “Go, go!” They scrambled for the doors into the central chamber. Ilkar and Denser sprinted away with Sirendor in close pursuit. Sha-Kaan breathed again and the huge double doors exploded inward, fragmenting, sending wood and metal against the walls to splinter, twist and smoulder. The shock sent Hirad sprawling and he crashed into the wall that backed the unlit fireplace, burning shards of wood covering the floor and his boots, the intense heat suffocating him. He lay confused for a second, seeing nothing but flame, then looked straight at Sha-Kaan as the Dragon drew more air into its lungs, its head thrust through the wreckage of the crested doors.

The barbarian closed his eyes, waiting for the end, but a hand reached round and grabbed his collar, hauling him to his feet and through the right-hand of the two doors into the central chamber. The Unknown dragged him under the overhang of the fire grate as twin lances of flame seared through the openings, one to either side of them, disintegrating wood and howling away toward the opposite wall, melting the metal of the Dragonene crest above the fire to the right.

“Come on, Hirad. It’s time to leave,” said the big warrior, and he pushed Hirad toward the exit passage after the rest of the retreating party.

“Bring back the amulet!” roared Sha-Kaan. “Hirad Coldheart, bring back the amulet!” Hirad hesitated again, but The Unknown shoved him into the passage as another burst of flame lashed the large chamber, its pulse of heat stealing breath and singeing hair.

“Quickly!” shouted Sirendor from up ahead. “The exit is closing. We can’t hold it.”

The two men upped their pace, tearing down the passageway and into the robing room. Another roll of flame boiled into the prayer chamber, its tendrils lashing down the passage, licking at Hirad’s back, the heat crinkling leather. Down the short entry tunnel Hirad could see Ilkar, arms outstretched, sweating in the light of a lantern as whatever spell he had cast kept the door at bay. But as he ran, he could see it inching closed. Ilkar sighed and closed his eyes.

“He’s losing it!” yelled Denser. “He’s losing it. Run faster!” The door was sliding closed, the mage’s bedroom disappearing with every step. Sha-Kaan’s howls were loud in their ears. The Unknown and Hirad made it through, bowling Ilkar on to the floor as they did so. The door closed with a dull thud and the Dragon’s voice was silenced.

Ilkar, Hirad and The Unknown picked themselves up and dusted themselves off. The barbarian nodded his thanks to the big man, who in turn nodded at the now closed entrance. There was nothing, no mark in the wall at all to suggest that there had ever been a door there.

“We were in another dimension. I knew the proportions were all wrong in there.”

“Not exactly another dimension,” corrected Ilkar. “Between dimensions is more accurate, I think.” He kneeled by the prone mage. “Well, well, well. Seran a Dragonene.” He felt for a pulse. “Dead, I’m afraid.”

“And he won’t be the only one.” Hirad turned on Denser. “You should have run while you had the chance.” He advanced, sword in hand, but Denser merely shrugged and continued to stroke the cat in his arms.

“Hirad.” The Unknown’s voice was quiet but commanding. The barbarian stopped, eyes still locked on Denser. “The fight is over. If you kill him now, it’s murder.”

“His little adventure killed Ras. It might have killed me, too. He—”

“Remember who you are, Hirad. We have a code.” The Unknown was standing at his shoulder now. “We are The Raven.”

Eventually, Hirad nodded and put up his sword.

“Besides,” said Ilkar. “He’s got a lot of explaining to do.”

“I saved your life,” said Denser, frowning. Hirad was on him in a moment, pinning his head to the wall with a forearm under the chin. The cat hissed and scrambled to safety.

“Saved my life?” The barbarian’s face was inches from Denser’s. “That’s your phrase for having me all but burned to a crisp, is it? The Unknown saved my life after you risked it. You ought to die for that alone.”

“How—” protested the mage. “I got its attention to let you run!”

“But there was no need, was there?” Hirad grunted as he saw confusion in Denser’s eyes. “It was letting me go, Xetesk man.” Hirad stepped back a pace, releasing the mage, who felt his neck gingerly. “You risked my life just to steal. I hope it was worth it.” He turned to the rest of The Raven.

“I don’t know why I’m wasting my breath on this bastard. We have a Vigil to observe.”

Alun shoved the note across the table, his hands shaking. More hands covered his, they were strong and comforting.

“Try to be calm, Alun, at least we know they are alive, so we have a chance.”

Alun looked into the face of his friend, Thraun, whose powerful body was squeezed in on the other side of the table. Thraun was huge, better than six feet in height, with massively powerful shoulders and upper body. His heavy features sprang from a young face and his shining-clean blond hair was gathered in a ponytail which reached halfway to his waist. He was regarding Alun with his yellow-ringed deep green eyes, earnest and concerned.

He flicked his head, the ponytail swishing briefly into view, and looked around the inn. It was busy with lunchtime traffic and the noise of the patrons ebbed and flowed around them. Tables were scattered around the timbered floor, and here and there, booths like the one in which they sat gave an element of ­privacy.

“What does it say, Will?” Thraun’s voice, as deep and gravelled as his barrel chest might suggest, cut through Alun’s misery. He removed his hands from Alun’s. Will sat next to him, a small man, wiry, bright-eyed and black-bearded, thinning on top. Will pulled at his nose with thumb and forefinger, his brows arrowing together as he read.

“Not a lot. ‘Your mage wife has been taken for questioning concerning the activities of the Dordovan College. She will be released unharmed assuming she cooperates. As will your sons. There will be no further communication.’”

“So we know where she is, then,” said the third member of the trio whom Alun had enlisted. An elf, Jandyr was young, with a long and slender face, clear blue oval eyes and a short tidy blond beard that matched the colour of his cropped hair.

“Yes, we do,” agreed Thraun. “And we know how far we can trust the words on that note.” He licked his lips and shovelled another forkful of meat into his mouth.

“You’ve got to help me!” Alun’s eyes flicked desperately over them all, never coming to rest. Thraun looked right and across. Both Will and Jandyr inclined their heads.

“We’ll do it,” said Thraun, through his chewing. “And we’ll have to be quick. The chances of him releasing them are very slim.” Alun nodded.

“You really think so?” asked Will.

“The boys are mage twins,” said Thraun. “They will be powerful and they are Dordovan. Alun will tell you himself, when they’ve finished with Erienne, they will probably kill them. We have to get them out.” He looked back at Alun. “It won’t be cheap.”

“Whatever it costs, I don’t care.”

“Of course, I’ll work for nothing,” said Thraun.“No, my friend, you won’t.” A half smile cracked Alun’s face. Tears glinted in his eyes. “I just want them home.”

“And home they will be. Now,” Thraun rose, “I’m taking you home. You rest, we’ll plan, and I’ll be back later in the day.”

Thraun helped Alun from the bench and the two men walked slowly from the inn.Richmond and Talan had moved Ras’s body to a quiet chamber carved out of the mountain into which the castle was built. Candles burned next to him, one for each point of the compass. His face was clean and shaven, his armour sewn and washed, his arms lay by his sides and his sword in its scabbard was laid along his body from his chin to his thighs.

Richmond did not look up from his kneeling position as Hirad, Sirendor, The Unknown and Ilkar entered. Talan, standing by the door, inclined his head to each of them as they passed him.

Ranged around the central table on which Ras lay, The Raven, heads bowed, paid their respects to their fallen friend. Each man remembered. Each man grieved. But only two spoke.

As the candles burned low, Richmond stood and resheathed his sword.

“My soul I pledge to your memory. I am yours to command from beyond the veil of death. When you call I shall answer. While I breathe, these are my promises.” His last was a bitter whisper. “I wasn’t there. I am sorry.” He looked to The Unknown, who nodded and moved to the table, walking around it. Beginning at Ras’s head, he snuffed the candles as he reached them.

“By north, by east, by south, by west. Though you are gone, you will always be Raven and we shall always remember. The Gods will smile on your soul. Fare well in whatever faces you now and ever.”

Again silence, but now in darkness.

Denser remained in Seran’s chambers. The dead mage was lying on his bed under a sheet. For his part, Denser couldn’t work out why he was still alive, but he was grateful. The whole of Balaia would be grateful, but no City would be breathing easier than Xetesk that the barbarian had been stopped.

The cat nuzzled his legs. Denser sagged down the wall and sat.

“I wonder if this really is it,” said Denser, turning the amulet over and over in his hands. “I think it is but I have to know.” The cat gazed into his eyes. No clue there. “The question is, do we have the strength to do it?” The cat jumped into his cloak, nestling into the warmth of Denser’s body.

It fed.

“Yes,” said Denser. “Yes, we do.” He closed his eyes and felt the mana form around him. This would be difficult but he had to know. A communion over such a distance was a strain on mind and body. Knowledge and glory would come at a price if they came at all.

They buried Ras outside the castle walls, branding the ground with The Raven mark; a simple profile of the bird’s head, single eye enlarged and wing curved above the head.

All but Richmond left the graveside, tired and hungry. For the lone warrior, kneeling in the cool damp of a windy, moonless night, the Vigil would last until dawn.

Sitting at a table in the huge kitchens, Ilkar described the events through the dimension door to Talan. It was only then that Hirad started to shake.

Picking up his mug of coffee from the table, he stared at it wobbling in his hands, liquid slopping out over his fingers.

“You all right?” asked Sirendor.

“I’m not sure,” said Hirad. “I don’t think so.” He raised the mug to his lips but couldn’t close his mouth on it. The coffee dribbled down his chin. His heart slammed in his chest and his pulse thumped in his neck. Sweat began to prickle his forehead and dampen his armpits. Images of Sha-Kaan’s head flooded his mind. That and the fire all around him, hemming him in. He could feel the heat again and it made his palms itch. He dropped the mug.“

Gods in the ground, Hirad, what’s wrong?” Sirendor’s voice betrayed alarm. The barbarian half smiled. He must look as terrified as he felt. “You need to lie down.”

“Give me a moment,” said Hirad. “I don’t think my legs’ll carry me anyway.” He glanced around the table. They were all staring at him, their food forgotten. He shrugged. “I didn’t even believe they existed,” he said in explanation. “So big. So . . . so huge. And right here!” He put a quivering palm in front of his face. “Too powerful. I can’t—” He broke off, shuddering the length of his body. Plates and cutlery on the table rattled. Tears fogged his vision and he felt his heart trip-hammering. He swallowed hard.

“What did it talk about?” asked Ilkar.

“Loud. He thundered in my head,” said Hirad. “He talked about dimensions and portals and he wanted to know what I was doing. Huh. Funny . . . that huge and he cared what I was doing. Me. I’m so small but he called me strong.” He shivered again. “He said he’d know me. He had my life. He could have crushed me just like that. Snuffed me out. Why didn’t he? I wish I could remember everything.”

“Hirad, you’re mumbling,” said Sirendor. “I think we should leave this for another time.”

“Sorry, I think I’ll lie down now, if you’ll help me.”

“Sure thing, old friend.” Sirendor smiled. He pushed back the bench and helped Hirad to shaky feet.

“Gods. I feel like I’ve been sick for a week.”

“You’ve been sick all your life.”

“Sod off, Larn.”

“I would, but you’d fall over.”

“Make sure he drinks plenty of hot, sweet liquid,” said The Unknown as the friends shambled past. “Nothing alcoholic.”

“Is the Xetesk mage still here?” asked Hirad. The Unknown nodded.

“In Seran’s chambers,” said Ilkar. “Asleep. Hardly surprising after the casting he’s done today. He won’t be leaving until I’ve spoken to him.”

“You should have let me kill him.”

The Unknown smiled. “You know I couldn’t.”

“Yes. Come on, Larn, or I’ll collapse where I’m standing.”

The two men sat in low chairs either side of a fire long dead. Night hurried to engulf the College City of Xetesk and, in response, lanterns glowed, keeping the dark at bay and lighting up the massed shelves of books that stood at every wall in the small study. On a desk kept meticulously tidy, a single candle burned above the ribboned and titled sheaves of papers.

Far below the study, the College quietened. Late lectures took place behind closed doors, spells were honed and adjusted in the armoured chambers of the catacombs, but the air outside was still.

Beyond the walls of the College, Xetesk still moved, but as full night fell, that movement would cease. The City existed to serve the College, and the College had in the past exacted a heavy price for its own existence. Inns would lock their doors, patrons staying until first light; shops and businesses feeding off those who fed off the College would shutter their windows. Houses would show no light or welcome.

No longer did Protectors issue from the College to snatch subjects for experiment. And no longer did Xetesk mages use their own people for sacrifice in mana-charge ceremonies. But old fears died hard and rumours would forever fly through the markets that bustled by day but echoed silence at night.

As darkness fell, a malevolent quiet still emanated from the College in a cloying cloud of apprehension and anxiety like fog rolling in from the sea. Countless years of blood ritual would never be forgotten and forever hearts would quicken at the sound of wood splintering in the distant dark, and cries would be stifled as footsteps were heard slowing by locked doors. Dread ran through the veins of Xetesk and the foreboding receded only with the lightening of the sky on a new morning.

It made the job of City Guard simple, as at dusk they closed the gates of the only fully walled City in Balaia and patrolled the empty streets. Fear stalked the alleyways as it had done for centuries. But now it was a legacy. It had no substance.

Change was so slow and the City was suffocating. Few native Xeteskians had left to enjoy the freedom granted them by the latest Lord of the Mount as his first action on assuming the mantle of the College’s ruling mage. And in the twelve years since, Styliann had encountered nothing but reluctance to cast aside the old ways, as if his people drew perverse comfort from living in fear of everyone they met. Yet now, his failure to change the collective will and mind of his people could work to his advantage.

Styliann was an imposing figure, well in excess of six foot, with the body of a forty-year-old disguising his true age of somewhere over fifty. His hair, receding halfway across his skull, was long, dark and brushed hard into a ponytail that reached beyond his shoulders. He wore dark trousers and a shirt of deepest blue, and his cloak of office, gold-trimmed black, was draped about his shoulders. His nose was long and thin, his jaw set harsh and his cold green eyes scared all they looked upon.

“I take it she escaped Terenetsa unharmed?” asked his companion across the fireplace.

Styliann blinked several times and shook his head to clear his mind of his reverie. He regarded Nyer, a senior aide and archmage, for a few moments, remembering the old maxim concerning where to keep your friends and enemies. He thought he had Nyer, a wily political animal and sharp thinker, placed about right.

“Yes, she did. Just. And she’s now well clear.” He shivered at the memory of his recent contact with Selyn, anxious for the mage spy’s safety. Even under a CloakedWalk, she had been at risk from those she watched and the manner of her escape from Terenetsa, a small Wesmen farming community not far west of the Blackthorne Mountains, would trouble his dreams that night. He reached a slightly tremulous hand down to a low table and picked up his wine, a deep and heavy red that had not kept as well as he’d hoped. He felt tired. Communion over such a range sapped the strength and he knew he would need to visit the catacombs for prayer later that evening.

“But something is troubling you, my Lord.”

“Hmm.” Styliann pursed his lips, knowing any reluctance to speak would be taken by Nyer as a personal slight. He couldn’t afford that. Not yet. “She saw everything we have been fearing. The Wesmen are subjugating villages near the Blackthornes. She heard the Shaman offer them life for crops and obedience. The evidence is just overwhelming. They are massing armies, they are united and the Shaman magic is strong.”

Nyer nodded, pushing his hand through his long greying hair.

“And Parve?” he asked.“I have asked her to travel there.”

“Selyn?”

“Yes. There is no one else and we must have answers.”

“But, my Lord—”

“I am well aware of the risks, Nyer!” snapped Styliann. His expression softened immediately. “My apologies.”

“Not at all,” said Nyer. He placed a comforting hand briefly on Styliann’s knee.

“We must be so careful now,” said Styliann after another sip of wine. “Are our Watchers sure the Wytch Lords are still held?”

Nyer breathed out, a long, sighing sound. “We believe so.”

“That isn’t good enough.”

“Please, Styliann, let me explain.” Nyer’s use of his Lord’s name was against protocol but Styliann let it go. Nyer was an old mage who rarely followed etiquette. “The spells to determine that the Wytch Lords are still in the mana cage are complex and are nearing completion for this quarter. Delays have been caused through unusually high activity in the interdimensional space in which the cage is located.”

“When will we have an answer?” Styliann pulled an embroidered cord next to the fireplace.

“In the next few hours. A day at most.” Nyer raised his eyebrows in apology.

“You know it’s only a matter of time, don’t you?”

“My Lord?”

“The evidence is all there.” Styliann sighed. “The unification of the Wesmen tribes, Shamen at the head of war parties, armies building in the southwest . . .”

“Must it be the Wytch Lords?”

“You don’t really need me to answer that question, do you?” Styliann smiled. Nyer shook his head. There was a knock at the door.

“Come!” barked Styliann. A young man entered, short red hair riding above a face taut with trepidation.

“My Lord?”

“Bring up a fire and another bottle of this rather average Denebre red.”

“At once, my Lord.” The young man left.

The two senior mages paused in their conversation, contemplating the future and not liking what they saw.

“Can we stop them this time?” asked Nyer.

“I fear that rather relies on your man,” replied Styliann. “At least as much as the timing of the Wytch Lords’ escape. He has reported, I take it?”

“He has, and we now hold the amulet.”

“Excellent!” Styliann slapped the arms of his chair with the palms of his hands and rose. He walked over to the window, hardly daring to ask his next question. “And?”

“It is Septern’s amulet. We can make progress now, assuming we get the right help.”

Styliann breathed deeply and smiled as he looked out of his Tower high above the College. The Tower dominated the College and its encircling balcony gave him unrivalled views of the City and its surrounds. The night was cool but dry. A thin cloud was bubbling up from the southeast, threatening to obscure the countless thousands of stars whose pale light pinpricked the dark. The smell of oil fires and the heat of the City wafted on a slight breeze, not unpleasant to the senses. Beyond the College walls, the quiet was growing.

Styliann’s Tower was encircled by those of his six Mage Masters but stood far taller. Looking down, he saw lights burning in Laryon’s Tower too. The most recently appointed Master, he was a man who would now have to join the inner circle, completing the seven-tower bond.

“This could mean everything to us,” he said.

“Laryon has worked hard,” said Nyer, coming to his side. “He has earned the credit.”

“And your man. He’ll see the necessary help is obtained?”

“I have every confidence.”

Styliann nodded and gazed out over Xetesk, at ease that his people would obey his every order without question. The first step had been successfully taken but now the way would become fraught and those who knew enough would have to be kept close.

“I think, Nyer, that when the wine arrives, we may permit ourselves a small celebration.”

Chapter 3

She lay back on the bed again, the pounding in her head bringing sweeping nausea through her body. She shuddered, prayed that she’d been sick for the last time but not really believing she had.

Every muscle ached, clotted with pain, every tendon strained. Her skin felt so tight across her chest it would split if she dared breathe in deep, and her shallow, gasping intakes drew whimpers as they stretched her tortured lungs. It would subside. However, having no idea how long she had been out, she had no idea when the symptoms would fade.

But the physical pain coursing through her body was as nothing to the well in her heart and soul, opened by the loss of her sons. Her reason to live. For them, her body quaked and shivered. She reached out with her mind, striving to touch theirs but knowing she could not and cursing her decision to delay the teaching of communion.

Where were they? Were they together? Gods, she hoped so. Were they alive? The tears came as the drug eased its hold on her body just a little. Great heaving sobs tore through her being and her cries echoed around her prison. Eventually, exhausted, she slept again.

Dawn and a second waking brought no relief from the agony of her loss. Pale light came through a single window high up in her circular room. She was in a tower, that much was certain. The room contained a small pallet bed, a desk and chair, and a woven rug whose red and gold had long ago faded but whose weight gave welcome insulation from the stone-flagged floor. She was still wearing the nightgown they had taken her in. She had not been wearing any socks, let alone shoes, and the room was chill. Dust covered every surface, puffing into the air around her body as she shifted uncomfortably on the bed. She pulled the blanket up around her shoulders.

A single door commanded her attention. It was locked and bolted, its heavy wood flush in the stone frame of the tower wall. The tears came again, but this time she was strong enough to force them back, driving her mind to seek the mana and a way out of the tower. It was there, pulsing within her and flowing around her, never stopping, always shifting and changing, urgent and random in its direction. Escape was just an incantation away. The door would prove no barrier to her FlameOrb.

But even as she readied to cast, the words came back. If you cast, your boys will die. Her senses returned and she found she was standing. She sagged into the chair.

“Patience,” she said. “Patience.” Anger in a mage could be so destructive, and while she didn’t know the fate of her sons, she couldn’t afford to lose the famously short Malanvai family temper.

While the yearning in her heart and the ache in her womb intensified with every passing second, her mind was beginning to see clearly at last. They had known she was a mage because they took her from Dordover for something specific. But they also wanted control. And controlling a conscious mage is difficult without restraint and violence. But they had found a way to chain her through her sons. It was for that reason she believed them alive. And not only that, close. Because whoever took her must know she wouldn’t help them without seeing her boys first. Hope surged within her but the flicker of joy she felt at an imminent reunion died as she saw her locked door.

Her heart turned over at the thought of her boys, so young, so alone and so frightened. Snatched in the middle of the night and locked in a place they wouldn’t recognise or comprehend. How must they feel? Betrayed. Abandoned by those who claimed to love them the most. Terrified by their solitude and helplessness. Traumatised by separation from their mother.

Fury bubbled beneath the hurt.

“Patience,” she murmured. “Patience.” They would have to come soon. While a jug of water had been left on the desk, there was no food in the room.

She fixed her eyes on the door while hatred for her captors seethed in her veins, the brophane dragged at her strength and her body pulsed mana and love to her children.

But when the key finally turned and the man she had dreaded seeing stood before her, she could do nothing but sob her thanks at his words.

“Welcome to my castle, Erienne Malanvai. I trust you are recovering. Now, I think we had better reunite you with your beautiful little boys.”

It was cold and he sat alone on cracked earth in a vast featureless empty space. There was no wind yet something was moving his hair and when he looked in front of him the Dragon was there. Its head was big, he couldn’t see the rest of its body. It breathed on him and he just sat there as the skin was burnt from his face and his bones darkened and split. He opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. He was flying above the land and it was black and smouldering. The sky above him was thick with Dragons but on the ground nothing was moving. He looked for his hands but they weren’t there and he felt for his face but the flesh was gone. It was hot. He was running. His arms were pumping hard but his legs moved so slowly. It was catching him and there was nowhere to run. He fell and there it was in front of him again. It breathed and he just sat there as the skin was burnt from his face and his bones darkened and split. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide and the heat scorched his eyes though he could not close them. He opened his mouth to scream.

Hands were about his face. He was sitting up but there was no Dragon, no blackened land. The fire was roaring in the grate. Ilkar put down the poker he’d been using to whip up the flames. Hirad thought it must be cold but he felt hot. Very hot. Talan and The Unknown were sitting up in their beds and it was Sirendor who was cupping his face.

“Calm down, Hirad. It’s over. Just a dream.”

Hirad looked the room over again, breathing deeply, his heart beginning to slow.

“Sorry,” he said.

Sirendor patted his cheeks and rose to his feet. “Scared the life out of me,” he said. “I thought you were dying.”

“So did I,” replied Hirad.

“You and the rest of the castle,” said Ilkar, stretching and yawning.

“Loud, was I?” Hirad managed a smile.

Ilkar nodded. “Very. Do you remember what you were dreaming about?”

“I’ll never be able to forget. It was Dragons. Thousands of Dragons. And Sha-Kaan. But it wasn’t here. Wherever it was was dead. Their world, I think. Sha-Kaan told me they were destroying it. It was black and burned. And Sha-Kaan burned me but I didn’t die. I just sat and screamed but there was no sound. I don’t understand. How can there be another world? Where is it?” He shivered.

“I don’t know. All I do know is, I’ve never been so scared. Those things don’t exist.”

“Yes they bloody do.”

“You know what I mean,” said Sirendor. “You’ll have to talk to Ilkar. But later. Maybe we all should. All this talk of dimensions and Dragons. I don’t know.” He stopped. Hirad wasn’t really listening.

“What time is it?”

“Dawn’s about an hour away,” said The Unknown after hitching a drape aside.

“I think I’ll pass on more sleep,” said Hirad. He got up and started pulling on his breeches and shirt. “I’m going to the kitchens for some coffee.” A look passed between Sirendor and the other three. Hirad couldn’t fathom it. “No problem, is there?”

“No,” said Sirendor. “No problem. I’ll join you.”

“Thanks.” Hirad smiled. So did Sirendor, but it seemed an effort for him. They left the room.

The castle kitchens never closed and heat filled the cavernous rooms from six open fires. Work and eating tables covered much of the floor space, and on racks around the walls hung pots, pans and utensils, some of which defied understanding. Smoke poured up chimneys and steam through open windows high above. The heat of the fires gave the kitchens a consoling warmth, and the sounds of orders mixed with laughter and carried on the smells of roasting meat and the sweet aromas of freshly baked bread brought back memories of a home life long lost.

On one of the fires a huge pot of water was kept boiling. Mugs and coffee grounds sat on trays near by. Ensconced at a table away from the clatterings of cooks and servants, the two men talked across their drinks.

“You’re looking glum, Sirendor.” The friends locked eyes. Sirendor’s seemed sorrowful. His brow was furrowed and his whole face wore trouble like an ill-fitting shirt. Hirad wasn’t used to it.

“We’ve been talking.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think? While you were asleep earlier.”

“I don’t think I like the sound of this.” Whatever it was, it was serious. He hadn’t seen Sirendor like this for years.

“We’re not getting any younger.”

“You what?”

“You heard.”

“Larn, I am thirty-one! You’re thirty and the big man’s just thirty-three and he’s the oldest! What are you talking about?”

“How many hired men do you know who are over thirty and still front-line quality?”

Hirad drew breath. “Well, not many but, I mean . . . we’re different. We are The Raven.”

“Yes, we are The Raven. And we’re getting too old to fight.”

“You’re kidding! We hammered that lot yesterday.”

“That’s the way you saw it, is it?” Hirad nodded. Sirendor smiled. “I somehow thought you might. The way I saw it is we didn’t have our edge.”

“That’s because we spend too much time standing and watching. Like I said, if we don’t do it, we’ll lose it.”

“Gods, Hirad, you’re stubborn in the face of the facts. Do you think it’s a coincidence that we’ve slowly taken fewer front-line contracts and more advisory and back-up jobs over the last couple of years?” Hirad said nothing. “What we had, that edge, has gone. When we were called in yesterday, we almost weren’t up to it.”

“Oh, come on, Larn . . .”

“Ras died?!” Sirendor looked around, then lowered his voice. “You could have died. Richmond made an unbelievable mistake and Ilkar lost the shield. If it hadn’t been for The Unknown we could have been wiped out. Us. The Raven!”

“Yeah, but the explosion . . .”

“You know as well as I do that two years ago we’d have been through them and at the mage before he had time to cast that spell. We have to adapt . . .” Sirendor trailed off. He took a gulp of his coffee. Hirad just stared at him.

“Hirad, I want us to be able to look back on the good days in another ten years’ time. If we try and keep The Raven going as it is, there won’t be any ten years.”

“One dodgy fight and you want to give up.”

“It’s not just about one fight. But yesterday was a warning of what could happen any time. We’ve seen the signs these past two years. We all have. It’s just that you chose to ignore them.”

“You want to disband The Raven, the rest of you?” asked Hirad. He was only half surprised to find his eyes moistening. His world was dropping to pieces before him and he couldn’t see a way out. Not yet.

“Not necessarily. Perhaps just a rest to take stock.” Sirendor leant back a little and spread his hands wide. “God knows, none of us needs the money any more to be comfortable. I sometimes think we must own half of Korina between us.” He smiled briefly. “Look, the reason I’m bringing this up is that we want to have a meeting when we get back to the City. We need to talk it through, all of us, when we’ve had a little time to think.”

Hirad stared into his coffee, letting the steam warm his face. Silent again.

“If we go on pretending it’s still like it was a few years ago, one day we won’t be fast enough. Hirad?” The barbarian looked up. “Hirad, I don’t want to lose you the way we lost Ras.” Sirendor sucked his lip, then sighed. “I don’t want to see you die.”

“You won’t.” Hirad’s voice was gruff. He swigged back his coffee and stood up, having to push his lips together to be sure they wouldn’t tremble. “I’m going to see to the horses,” he said at length. “We may as well make an early start.” He strode out of the kitchens and through the castle to the courtyard, where he stopped, staring at the place that might have witnessed The Raven’s last fight. He wiped angrily at his eyes and headed for the stables.

Ilkar too decided against further rest and went instead to Seran’s chambers. The mage from Lystern, smallest of the four College Cities, had been moved to a low table in his study, a sheet covering his body. Ilkar pulled the sheet back from Seran’s face. He frowned.

The dead mage’s skin was taut across his skull and his hair completely white. He hadn’t looked that way the previous evening. And the cut on his forehead, now it was clean, looked as if it had been made with a small claw.

He heard movement behind him and turned to see Denser, the Xetesk mage, standing in the doorway to the bedroom. His pipe smoked gently in his mouth and the cat was in his cloak. Ilkar found the pipe incongruous. Denser was by no means an old man, though his exertions had given him an appearance well beyond his mid-thirties years.

“An unfortunate result, but inevitable,” said Denser. He looked terribly tired. His face was grey and his eyes dark and sunken. He leaned against the door frame.

“What happened to him?”

Denser shrugged. “He was not a young man. We knew he might die.” He shrugged again. “There was no other way. He wanted to stop us.”

“We.” In Ilkar’s mind, the coin dropped. “The cat.”

“Yes. He’s a Familiar.”

Ilkar pulled the sheet back over Seran’s head and moved toward Denser. “Come on, you’d better sit down before you fall down. There’s questions I need answering.”

“I didn’t think this was a social call.” Denser smiled.

“No.” Ilkar did not.

Once seated, Ilkar looked at Denser sprawled on Seran’s bed and didn’t have to ask his first question. The Xeteskian wouldn’t have had the strength to try leaving the castle last night.

“Overdid it yesterday, did you?” asked the Julatsan.

“There was work to do once I had recovered this,” agreed Denser, pulling the amulet from his cloak, where it hung from its chain round his neck. “I presume this is what you wish to talk about.”

Ilkar inclined his head. “What sort of work?”

“I had to know whether it was the piece we were after.”

“And was it?”

“Yes.”

“Xetesk sent you?”

“Of course.”

“And this battle?” Ilkar waved a hand around vaguely.

“Well, let’s just say it was fairly easy to place me in an attack force but it wasn’t staged for my benefit, if that’s what you mean.”

“So why didn’t you just join the garrison defence?”

“With a Dragonene mage in residence? Hardly.” Denser chuckled. “I’m afraid Seran and Xetesk didn’t see eye to eye.”

“Surprise, surprise,” muttered Ilkar.

“Come now, Ilkar, we are none of us that different from each other.”

“Bloody hell! Is the conceit of Xetesk that great that your Masters really believe all mages are essentially alike? That is an insult to magic itself and a failing in your teaching.” Ilkar could feel the anger surging in him. His cheeks were hot and his eyes narrowed to slits. The blindness of Xetesk was sometimes staggering. “You know where the power comes from to shape mana for the spells you were casting yesterday. There is no blood on my hands, Denser.”

Denser was quiet for a while. He relit his pipe and picked his cat out of his cloak, dropping it on to the bed. The animal stared at Ilkar while the Dark Mage ruffled its neck. Ilkar’s temper frayed further but he held his tongue.

“I think, Ilkar,” said Denser at length, blowing out a series of smoke rings, “that you shouldn’t accuse my Masters of failings in their teaching until you are aware of the shortcomings in your own.”

“What are you talking about?”

Denser spread his palms. “Do you see blood on my hands?”

“You know what I mean,” snapped Ilkar.

“Yes, I do. And you should also know that a Xeteskian mage has more than one source for his mana. As, no doubt, have you.”

There was silence between them, though around them the castle corridors were beginning to echo with the sounds of another day.

“I will not discuss College ethics with you, Denser.”

“A pity.”

“Pointless.”

“A shortcoming in your teaching, Ilkar?”

He ignored the jibe. “I need to know two things. How did you know about Seran and that amulet, and what is it?”

Denser considered for a while. “Well, I’m not about to divulge College secrets, but unlike you, apparently, Xetesk has always taken Dragonene lore seriously—patchy though it may be. Our work in dimensional research has led us to develop a spell that can detect the kind of disturbance caused by the opening of an interdimensional portal, like the one we went through yesterday. We suspected Seran—I won’t tell you why—we targeted his chambers and got the desired result. I was sent to retrieve Dragonene artefacts and I got this.” He took the amulet from its chain and tossed it to Ilkar, who turned it over a couple of times, shrugged and threw it back.

“It has Dragonene lore on it, written in all four College lore scripts,” said Denser, rehanging it on its chain. A brief smile touched his lips. “It will be incredibly useful to our research and, when we’re done with it, we can simply name our price. You would not believe what collectors will pay for a piece like this.”

“And that’s it?” asked Ilkar flatly.Denser nodded. “We all need money. You of all people should know that research is not cheap.”

Ilkar inclined his head. “So what now?”

“I have to get this piece into the right hands, quickly,” said Denser.

“Xetesk?”

Denser shook his head. “Too far and too dangerous. Korina. We can secure it there. You’re going that way, I take it?”

“Yes.”

“I would like The Raven to bodyguard me. You will be well paid.”

Ilkar gaped at him, making sure he’d heard correctly. “You have got to be bloody joking, Denser. After what happened yesterday? You’ve got some nerve, I’ll give you that. Hirad still wants to kill you as far as I know. And even if the others didn’t mind, do you really think that I would ever stoop to work for Xetesk?”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“But you can’t possibly be surprised.” Ilkar got up and dusted himself down. “You’ll have to find someone else. There are plenty still here looking for paid passage back to the City.”

“I would prefer The Raven. It seems the least I can do in recompense.”

“We don’t want your money,” said Ilkar. “I’ll be making a report to Julatsa when I get back to Korina. You understand there will be a representation from the three Colleges to Xetesk over this whole incident.”

“We look forward to it.”

“I’ll bet.” Ilkar turned as he reached the door. “You hungry? I’ll show you the way to the kitchens.”

“Thank you, brother.”

Ilkar’s embryonic smile disappeared. “I am not your brother.”

Chapter 4

Erienne sat on the double bed in the isolated tower room, a son cradled beneath each arm. Her body knew peace, however fleeting, and her children had ceased their crying.

But they had doubted her and the moment of their reunion would live with her forever. Left alone at the top of the spiral stairway, she had grasped the handle and opened the door, half expecting to see them dead. Instead, they were sitting together on the edge of their bed, talking in whispers, food and drink ignored and cooling on the table that made up the only other furniture but for two chairs. Even the floor had no covering for its cold stone.

She’d taken them in in an instant, brown bobbed hair a little untidy, round faces, pale blue eyes, small noses, slightly jutting ears and long-­fingered hands. Her boys. Her beautiful boys.

Their faces had turned to her in symphony and she’d held out her arms. It was then she knew hatred like she’d never felt before. Because for a moment they hadn’t seen her, their mother and protector. They’d seen a betrayer, someone who had let them be taken, let them be afraid.

And as she’d stood in the doorway, dishevelled in her bare feet, her nightgown stained and torn, her face displaying the effects of the brophane and her hair tangled, the tears had flooded her eyes and smeared a clean track on her dust-darkened cheeks.

“I’m here. Mother’s here.” They’d run into her arms, the three crying until nothing was left but to hold on in case they should ever be separated again. Now they sat, all three on the bed, the boys nuzzling her chest while her arms bound them and her hands stroked their sides.

“Where are we, Mummy?” asked Thom, sitting to her left.

“We’re in a castle far from home, full of bad men,” said Erienne, gripping her boys closer and glaring at the closed door, outside which, she knew, Isman would now be standing. “I’ve got to help them, answer some questions about magic, and then they’ll let us go.”

“Who are they?” Aron looked up into his mother’s eyes, lost and confused. She felt his hand grip at her back.

“When we get home, I’ll tell you all about them. But they are men trying to understand magic and what men don’t understand frightens them. It always has.”

“When will we go home?” Aron again.

Erienne sighed. “I don’t know, my loves. I don’t know what they want to ask me.” She smiled to ease the tension. “I’ll tell you what. When we get home, I’ll let you choose what you want to learn about next. What will it be?”

The boys leaned forward, shared a glance, nodded and chimed in concert:

“Communion!”

Erienne laughed. “I knew you’d say that. Bad boys! Just so you can talk without me hearing you.” She tickled their stomachs, the boys giggling and squirming. “Bad boys!” She fluffed their hair then held them close again.

“Now,” she said, eyeing their plates with distaste. “I want you to eat the bread on those plates but nothing else, do you hear? I’m going to go and see about getting us home. I’ll be back to teach you later, so I hope you haven’t forgotten what I told you last week!” She made to rise but the boys clung on.

“Do you have to go, Mummy?” asked Aron.“The sooner I do, the sooner we’ll all be home with your father.” She hugged them again. “Hey, I won’t be gone long, I promise.” They both looked up at her. “I promise,” she repeated.

She unlocked their arms and went to the door, pulling it open on a surprised-looking Isman. The rangy warrior lurched to a standing position from his slouch against the wall, the flaps of his leather tunic clapping together over his worn brown shirt.

“Finished so soon?” he asked.

“Just in a hurry,” said Erienne brusquely. “I’ll answer your questions now. My boys need their father and their own beds.”

“And we are just as anxious as you to see you are held here for as short a time as possible,” said Isman smoothly. “The Captain will question you shortly. Until then—”

“Now,” said Erienne, closing the door at her back with one last smile at her boys, who waved at her.

“You are in no position to make demands of us,” sneered Ismam.

Erienne smiled and moved close to Isman. As she did so, her face hardened, the smile seeming to freeze on her cheeks.

“And what if I walk past you now?” she hissed, her face paling. “What are you going to do?” Their faces were scant inches apart, his eyes flickering over her. “Stop me? Kill me?” She laughed. “You’re scared of me because we both know I could kill you before your sword left your scabbard. And we’re alone, so don’t tempt me. Just take me to your Captain right now.”

Isman pursed his lips and nodded.

“He said you’d be trouble. We had you watched for months before we took you. He said your kind knew much but were arrogant.” He pushed past her and led the way down the spiral stairs. He turned at the bottom. “He was right. He always is. Go ahead, kill me if you think you can. There are three men outside this door. You can’t get far. We both know that too, don’t we?”

“But I’d have the satisfaction of seeing you die,” said Erienne. “And I’d see the fear in your eyes. Think on it. Unless you watch me all the time, you’ll never know if I’m about to cast. Never know when you’re about to die.”

“We have your children.” The sneer was back on Isman’s face.

“Well, you’d better see you look after them, then, hadn’t you? Don’t turn your back, Isman.”

The warrior let out a contemptuous laugh, but as he turned to open the door, Erienne thought she saw him shudder.

Denser sat at the end of a bench table full of men who, not many hours before, would have killed him. The barbarian, Hirad Coldheart, was not there. Seeing to their horses, Sirendor Larn had said. Denser shivered inwardly, laid down his fork across his half-eaten breakfast of meat, gravy and bread, and sipped at his coffee. His cat purred as it lay on the bench beside him, luxuriating in the warmth cast by the range of fires in the kitchens.

They’d been prepared to die then, at the barbarian’s sword. Their inner calm had been complete. And had they died, he in a crush of bone and his cat in a screaming mental explosion, the whole of Balaia might have died with them.

Denser looked up at The Unknown Warrior. They all still had a chance because of him. Him and the simple code The Raven had always followed. The reason why they above all other mercenary teams remained in demand, successful and so very effective. While killing was legal within the rules of battle, and in witnessed defence of self and others, outside of these boundaries it was murder. And The Raven, perhaps alone, had stood in battle lines for ten years with robbers, bandits, bounty hunters and other hired men little better than murderers, with their collective conscience clear.

There were plenty who said it was the total adherence to their code that made them strong and feared by opponents; and Denser had no doubt that the perpetuation of this myth helped them enormously. Mainly, though, he considered it was because while as individuals they were outstanding, if not brilliant, as a team they were simply awesome.

Yet it was the code that swung the balance when the cost of their hire was considered. It meant that their employers could expect the contract to be upheld and the battle to be fought by The Raven within the rules.

The Code: Kill But Never Murder.

So simple that many tried to live by it on taking up the career as a hired warrior or mage. But most lacked the discipline, intelligence, stamina or skill to keep true in the heat of battle, victory or retreat, and aftermath. And certainly none had done so for ten years without blemish.

It would be easy to cast them as heroes, but Denser had seen them fight more than once and what they were was, to him, obvious. They were a team of terribly efficient killers. Killers but not murderers.

But as Denser looked around the table at the men eating in silence, each walking the privacy of his own mind, he thought they looked tired, and a pang of fear flooded his gut lest they should ultimately refuse him.

Because he needed them. Xetesk needed them. Gods, all of Balaia would need them if the information the spies were sending back proved to be the prelude to the rising of the Wytch Lords. But could he convince them of what had to be done, and would Xetesk try to bring the Colleges together?

Despite the knowledge of what could be to come, Denser wondered whether he wasn’t facing his most difficult challenge now.

The Raven.

Even if they heard the truth, he was pretty sure it wouldn’t make any difference. They didn’t take a contract because they believed in the cause. In fact the cause was largely irrelevant. The job had to be made worth their while, worth their reputation and worth their attendance. Worth the risk. That’s why the truth was pointless, at least until he could hide it no longer. No compensation could possibly be worth the risks he would be asking them to face.

Denser took another mouthful of food. It was a great pity he hadn’t met The Raven in Korina as planned. There he might have been able to conceal his College identity for long enough. Their being part of Taranspike Castle’s defence hadn’t figured in Xetesk’s plans. Now he was truly up against it and right now he couldn’t even persuade Ilkar to let him pay them to ride with him to Korina, the City they were headed for anyway.

He glanced up and caught The Unknown’s eye. The warrior calmly held his gaze, swallowed his mouthful and pointed his knife at Denser.

“Tell me something,” he said. “Ever see a Dragon before?”

“No,” said Denser.

“No. And what would you have done had Hirad not managed to distract it so effectively while you stole your prize?”

Denser smiled ever so slightly. “That is a very good question. We hadn’t planned on a Dragon being there.”

“Clearly. My guess is you would have died.”

“Possibly.” Denser half shrugged. Actually he thought he would have been fine but he could see where the line was leading and it gave him a chance.

“Definitely.” The Unknown smeared a chunk of bread around his plate and then placed it carefully in his mouth. “There is an argument, therefore, that says we helped you take the amulet, however unwittingly.”

Denser inclined his head and refilled his mug from the copper pot on the table.

“What sort of percentage did you have in mind?”

“Five per cent of sale value.”

Denser blew out his cheeks. “That’ll be a lot of money.”

It was The Unknown’s turn to shrug. “Call it compensation for the death of a Raven man. Or for the countless nights we wake up shaking and sweating from the visions of what we saw in there. I don’t mind telling you, it took all the control I had not to turn and run.”

“That would be a first ever,” said Ilkar eventually into the void. The Unknown inclined his head.“

He wouldn’t have been the only one,” said Sirendor. More nods around the table mixed with the odd smile.

“And none of you know the half of it.” All heads turned to see Hirad standing in the doorway of the kitchen. He walked toward them slowly, his face drawn and pinched round the eyes.

“You all right, Hirad?” asked Sirendor.

“Not really. I was outside remembering what Sha-Kaan said, and if that doorway was still there I’d be taking the amulet back to him.”

“Why?” Sirendor again, and Denser held his breath.

“Something he said. About holding the portal from his world to ours and guarding something we shouldn’t have made. Whatever it was, he is angry now, so what if he chooses not to hold the portal any longer?”

“I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about, Hirad.” Sirendor for the third time.

“Neither have I really,” said Hirad. “Just that if we ever see a Dragon in the skies of Balaia, it’ll be the end for all of us.”

“What do you mean, exactly?” asked Denser.

“What do you think I mean?” snapped the barbarian. “We’ll all die. They are too powerful and there are too many of them. Trust me.” He moved to the cooking pots and ladled himself some meat into a bowl.

“Look. Going back a little.” Denser’s attention was once again on The Unknown Warrior. “I’ll agree to the five per cent if you agree to bodyguard me back to Korina.”

Ilkar swung round from where he had been staring at Hirad as if he had been slapped in the face. “I have already told you that we will not work for Xetesk.” His voice was low, steady and certain.“

Just exactly how much do you think that thing is worth, Xetesk man?” asked Hirad.

Denser raised his eyebrows. “Well, though I can’t guarantee it, I think we’re talking in the region of five million truesilver.” There was a brief pause of slack-jawed disbelief.

“We’ll take the job.”

“Hirad!” snapped Ilkar. “You do not understand.”

“It’s good money, Ilkar.”

“It’s unbelievable, more like,” said Talan. “That’s a quarter of a million truesilver for taking a passenger down a road we’re already travelling.” Hirad just mouthed the figure.

“You know something, Hirad, I just cannot believe that you of all people would agree to this. He all but had you killed.” Ilkar’s tone bordered on contempt.

“Yeah, so he owes me.” Hirad kept his face away from the Xeteskian as he spoke. “I don’t have to like him. I don’t even have to look at him. In fact I can go on hating him. All I have to do is put up with him riding near by on the way back to Korina. Then he pays us a great deal of money and we never see him again. I think I can handle it.”

“Anyway it’s not that simple,” said Ilkar.

“Yes it is.”

“It isn’t and I have a real problem with it,” began Ilkar, but the barbarian loomed over him.

“I know you don’t agree with the Xetesk morality—”

“That’s an understatement and a half—”

“—but considering what you lot have been about behind my back, I don’t think it’s the kind of money we should turn down, do you? It might be the last we ever make.” He straightened. Ilkar just scowled at him. “Face it, Ilkar, you’ll be outvoted. Don’t make it difficult.” Ilkar’s eyes narrowed to slits.

The Unknown reached a hand across to Denser. “We have a contract. Talan will write it and you and I will sign it. No actual value will be mentioned but the percentage and intention to pay will be registered.”

“Excellent,” said Denser. The two men shook.

“Indeed it is.” The Unknown drained his mug. “You know what, I can feel a Rookery party coming on.”

The door to the kitchens opened again.

“I hear you couldn’t save my mage. A pity. He was a good man, Seran.”

The Raven turned to look at their employer, and Denser his erstwhile opponent for the first time. Baron Gresse was middle-aged with a powerful mind and a quartet of sons to make up for his own fading strength. Spurning rich man’s clothes—and he was among the top five Barons in terms of wealth—he walked in wearing practical riding garb, cloak over one arm, leather jerkin, woollen shirt and leather thighed cloth trousers.

He dismissed his men at arms from the door and waved away the babbling kitchen folk as he made his way to The Raven’s table. He studied them all through his large brown eyes, his balding grey head moving smoothly as he did so. He reached out a hand.

“The Unknown Warrior.”

“Baron Gresse.” The men shook.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise.” The Unknown glanced along the table. “Get the Baron some coffee, Talan.”

“Well, well, The Raven. Hardly a surprise we won the day. Seran always chose well.” Gresse chewed his lip. “Where will I find another like him, eh?”

“Julatsa,” said Ilkar. “At least we’re consistent.”

Gresse chuckled. “Do you mind if I sit down?” He gestured at the bench. Ilkar moved along and he sat. Talan placed coffee in front of him. He nodded his thanks.

An awkward silence fell around the table. Denser scratched his beard nervously. The Unknown gazed at the Baron, impassive as always. Ilkar’s ears pricked.

“I shan’t keep you in suspense,” said Gresse, sipping at his beverage, a smile playing about his lips. “But I was hoping you might be able to back up something I’ve heard.”

“Of course,” said The Unknown. “If we can.”

“Good. I’ll be brief. I have been called to a meeting of the Korina Trade Alliance concerning deteriorating conditions to the west of the Blackthorne Mountains. There are rumours that the Wesmen have stepped up activity, broken the Understone Pass Right of Passage agreement, and there are fears of incursions into the east—although I should point out that the garrison at Understone itself has reported nothing out of the ordinary. I need to know whether you have picked up any rumours. I understand you were fighting with Baron Blackthorne himself not long ago, and he is unable to attend the meeting.” Gresse’s eyes twinkled.

“We only fought with him so The Unknown could get a better deal on his wine.” Sirendor smiled.

“I feel sure you did not.”

“As it happened, that was part of the agreement,” said The Unknown. “As regards rumours, we heard plenty while we were there, but this is six months ago we’re talking about.”

“Anything you heard, even in passing, that I could bring to the table would be useful.”

“Put it this way,” said Ilkar. “If you believed everything you heard, the Wytch Lords are back, Parve is a bustling city once again and the Wesmen are torching everything west of the Blackthorne Mountains.”

“And you give these rumours no credence,” said Gresse.

“Nothing a Wesmen war party might do would surprise me,” said Ilkar. “But aside from that, no.”

“Hmmm.” Gresse was thoughtful. “Interesting. Thank you for your help yesterday, by the way. I understand you lost a man. I’m sorry.”

“It’s a risk, let’s be honest,” said Hirad, though his tone was unconvincing.

“Nevertheless, to lose a friend cannot be easy. I am sorry and I am grateful. Yesterday’s was a battle I couldn’t afford to lose. Literally.”

“You make it sound as though you’re on your uppers,” said Talan.

Gresse shrugged. “Taranspike Castle is of major tactical importance. The owner negotiates rights of passage through one of the principal routes in and out of Korina. Had I lost it to Baron Pontois, he would have controlled both of my key transport routes to the capital as well as holding land on two sides of my estate. He could have chosen to deny me access or price it out of my reach, either way bankrupting me over time. My best alternative route takes days, not hours.”

“Unless you chose to take one back by force,” said Hirad.

“That is always an option. Expensive but an option.” Gresse’s face hardened.“

And yet you’ll sit down with Pontois at the Korina Trade Alliance,” said Talan.

“Yes. Strange, I know, but reality. Such is the malaise of the KTA. The word ‘alliance’ rings very hollow these days.” There was more than a hint of sadness in his tone.

The table fell silent for a time. The Unknown Warrior studied the Baron while he drank his coffee. The big warrior smiled, Gresse caught his expression and frowned in response.

“It seems to me that you omitted to tell us any rumours you might have heard,” said The Unknown.

“I did, and I have something rather more than rumour, I’m afraid. I have evidence that the Wesmen, far from burning, are subjugating, building and uniting again.”

“What do you mean, again?” asked Hirad.

“I’ll teach you the history later,” said Ilkar with a shake of his head.

“How could you—” Denser bit his lip and closed his mouth.

“Something to say, Xetesk man?” Hirad growled.

“I was merely curious how he came by such information.” Denser’s recovery was betrayed by a face that displayed his surprise.

“Everything has its price,” said Gresse, coolly. “Might I ride to Korina with you this morning?”

“Be our guest,” said Hirad. “Denser’s paying, after all.”

“Good.” Gresse rose, shooting Hirad a quizzical look. “My party will be ready in, shall we say, one hour?”

“It suits us perfectly,” said The Unknown. “Gentlemen, The Rookery beckons.”

Erienne and the Captain met in the library. Warmed by two fires and lit by a dozen lanterns, the immaculately kept house of books was testament to his intelligence if not his morals.

Five shelves high, covering three sides of the room, perhaps fifteen by twenty-five feet, books loomed around her. A fire stood either side of the only door. Rugs covered the floor and a reading desk dominated the far end. She had been told to sit in a large green leather-upholstered chair near one of the fires, and when the Captain came in, followed by a warrior carrying a tray of wine and food, he said nothing before setting himself in a similar seat at right angles to her.

She had locked her gaze on the fire to stop her eyes catching sight of him, allowing the light of the flames to mesmerise her, only dimly hearing the clink of glasses, the glug of a pouring bottle and the metal sound of knife on carving tray.

“Once again, welcome, Erienne Malanvai,” said the Captain. “You must be hungry.”

Erienne let her eyes travel over the tray that sat on a low table between them, surprised at the quality of its content.

“How dare you offer me that, when the muck you served up for my boys is hardly fit for a dog, let alone frightened young children?” she said. “They will each have a plate of this now.”

She could sense the Captain’s smile. “You heard her. Fresh lamb and vegetables for the boys.”

“Yes, sir.” The door closed.

“I am not unreasonable,” said the Captain.

Erienne’s face was pure disgust. “You have taken two innocent children from their homes in the middle of the night and locked them terrified in a cold tower. You have kept me from them and fed them muck I wouldn’t give to my pigs. Don’t talk to me about reason.” Still refusing to look at him, she selected some meat and vegetables and ate in silence. She poured herself a glass of wine and drank staring at the fire. All the while, the Captain watched and waited.

“So ask,” she said, placing her empty plate on the table. “I doubt I have any secrets from you.”

“That would certainly make things simpler,” said the Captain. “I am glad you are being so cooperative.”

“Don’t feel it’s out of any fear of you or your band of lame monkeys,” Erienne said haughtily. “I care for my sons and any way that I can help them that does not compromise the Dordovan College is fine by me.”

“Excellent.” The Captain refilled his glass. “I do wish you’d look at me.”

“To do so would make me nauseous. To utter your name is an affront to my College and to speak with you is tantamount to heresy. Now get on with your questions. In an hour I want to see my sons again.” Erienne kept her face turned to the fire, drawing comfort from its warmth and colour.

“And so you shall, Erienne, so you shall.” The Captain stretched out his legs toward the fire; a pair of scuffed and age-cracked brown leather riding boots moved into Erienne’s vision. “Now then, I am becoming very disturbed by the extent to which so-called dimensional investigation and research is damaging the fabric of Balaia.”

“Well, you’ve clearly been very busy in here, haven’t you?” said Erienne after a pause.“Clever remarks will get you hurt,” said the Captain, his tone leaving her in no doubt that he meant it.

“I was trying to say that very few people have any knowledge of the existence of dimensional magics, never mind the potential for their danger.”

“No.” The Captain reached down and scratched his left leg, Erienne glimpsing his greying hair, thinning from the crown. “Contrary to popular belief, I believe in the value of magic in the right place. But I also understand its dangers because I have taken the time to find out for myself. Meddling with dimensions could, I believe, destabilise the world balance that currently exists.”

“You’re talking to the wrong College,” said Erienne.

“Well, Xetesk mages are just a little harder to come by,” said the Captain testily.

“I’d love to say I was sorry,” retorted Erienne. And at last, she looked at him. He kept his grey hair close-cropped and his beard, which still held flecks of brown, was similarly well trimmed. Skin was sagging under his eyes and his red-patched cheeks and nose were evidence of a reliance on the bottle. He was getting fat, too, as he breasted middle age, a fact which his leather coat and shirt failed to hide. He ignored her sudden attention.

“But Septern was a Dordovan mage.”

“We’ve already established that you’ve done your homework.” Erienne refilled her glass. “It also no doubt told you that he’s been presumed dead for about three hundred years.”

“And there the information ends?” said the Captain. “I was rather hoping a Dordovan Lore Mage like yourself could fill in a few gaps.”

“And now the misunderstanding is yours,” said Erienne. “Because you assume we have secret texts.”

“But Septern was a Dordovan mage,” repeated the Captain.

“Yes, he was. And a genius. And so far ahead of his time that we still haven’t managed to re-create all of his work.” Erienne plucked some grapes from the fruit bowl and ate them, spitting the stones into her hand and throwing them into the fire.

The Captain leaned forward, frowning. “But surely he reported his findings. I understood that to be a requirement of every mage.”

“Septern didn’t live by those rules.” Erienne sighed as the Captain’s frown deepened. “Look, you need to understand. Septern was a throwback to the days before the Colleges split.”

“So he wasn’t just ahead of his time, he was behind it as well.” The Captain smiled, pleased at his own joke, revealing lines of brown, rotting teeth set in flame-red gums.

“Yes, I suppose so. The point is, his mind was able to accept lore at the very base level, and that let him read and understand Dordovan, Xeteskian and Julatsan lores with varying degrees of success. It made him brilliant but it also made him arrogant. He lived outside of the College, rarely reported on his work, made only cryptic logs of his research and not all of those logs are in our library. Xetesk has some, others are lost at his house—assuming he wrote anything at all about some of the things we know he was capable of.” Erienne took a sip of wine. “Could I have some water, please?”

“Certainly.” The Captain rose and pulled the door open. The sound of a man dragging his feet to attention echoed in the corridor outside. “Water and a glass. Now.” He returned to his seat. “An interesting history. Of course, I am aware of his house. I have had men at the ruins on several occasions. So tell me, what is the state of your development of dimensional research, and what do you hope to achieve?”

Erienne opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, pondering her answer. It was all too easy. The Captain was nothing like she had been led to believe. That she would hate him forever for the kidnap of her children was certain, but his behaviour was confusing. Here she sat in a warm room, where she had been fed with good food and asked gentle questions about her College activities. So far he had asked her nothing he couldn’t have found out by knocking on the College’s front door. There had to be more, it was just a question of when he dealt it to her. She had the uneasy feeling she was being softened up for a heavy blow. She determined to keep her mind sharp.

“What we know of Septern tells us that he achieved a great deal in terms of dimensional magics. He created a stable, self-sustaining portal for travelling between nominated dimensional spaces and we believe he travelled widely—some of his wilder writings suggest as much.

“Dordover is nowhere near his level of sophistication in dimension doors. We can’t travel, we can’t see in, all we can do is plot other dimensions and chart land and sea features. To progress more quickly, we need Septern’s lost texts because we believe this magic mixes College lores.”

“And where do you hope this research will take you?”

“Into other dimensions. To explore, to chart, to meet other races. The possibilities are endless.” Erienne was enthused in spite of herself.

“To conquer, to subvert, to rule, to steal.” The Captain’s tone was hard but not unpleasant.

“Is that the basis for your concern?”

He inclined his head. “I believe we have no place interfering in other dimensions. We have our own and it is difficult enough to control without linking it to other places and times. I see nightmare scenarios where others might invade to avenge what we have done. No one will be safe anywhere because no one will ever know when or where a door might be opened.”

“All the more reason to complete our research and understanding,” said Erienne.

“Neither of us is naive enough to believe that Dordover and Xetesk research this magic to benefit the population of Balaia, are we? I would hate to think you were opening doors which you were then powerless to close.” The Captain scratched an ear. “Tell me, is Xetesk further advanced than ­Dordover?”

Erienne stared at him blankly. “If and when the missing elements of Septern’s dimensional texts are recovered, we may be forced to form a research group,” she said slowly. “Until that time, communication remains minimal.”

“I understand.”

“It was a stupid question to ask a Dordovan.”

“Stupidity sometimes elicits the real gems.”

The door opened and a man entered carrying a jug of water and two glasses. He set them on the table and withdrew. Erienne filled a glass and drank it back in one.

“Anything else?”

“Oh, a good deal,” said the Captain. He drained and refilled his wine glass. “I have hardly begun, although your information is gratefully received. I should let you get back to your children but think on this. Given that you appear to know all you can about dimensional magics already, I find it disturbing that there has been such a recent surge in interest surrounding Septern’s research.

“Mastery of dimensional magic wasn’t his only triumph, was it? There was one of even greater notoriety. He created a spell, didn’t he? And I want to know why Xetesk has suddenly put all its muscle behind looking for it.”

Erienne’s face became deathly white.



Dawnthief © James Barclay
Cover Illustration © Sam Hadley
Design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht

James Barclay is in his forties and lives in Teddington in the UK with his wife and son. He is a full-time writer. Visit him online at www.jamesbarclay.com

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