Not for the first time, Keira Altman was suddenly very aware of just how underrated flashlights were, thinking ruefully on the complete absence of all such useful technology in the realm of Loren. Such revelations weren’t limited to times spent creeping toward wooded lodges in the dead of night while trying to not impale herself on her sword. There were, in fact, many things she missed about her old world, television and the internet merely first among many. Yet it was moments like these when she became infinitely more appreciative of the mundane miracles that had filled twenty-first-century life in Northern California.
She was just beginning to muse on the glories of ice cream and refrigeration in general when the grim figure leading the cohort fell to his knees, gesturing for them to follow suit. Keira dropped to a crouch, unsheathed blade at the ready, listening hard for the source of the delay. To the right, her best friend and grounder, Danny O’Leary, motioned toward a flickering candle in the window closest to the forest’s edge. His pale green eyes were just visible over the top of the gray mask that covered his nose and mouth, and Keira saw them tighten in a silent question. Keira shrugged and shook her head slightly—she couldn’t imagine why anyone would be awake inside.
The flame vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and after a moment’s hesitation, the lead Legionnaire rose to his feet, motioning them forward once again. They continued their slow progress up the hill, one by one, stepping carefully to avoid the loudest patches of underbrush. Keira watched as the other black-clad figures slipped off in pairs, each going to their assault points. A light brush on her arm brought her attention back to Danny, who nodded toward the cellar door at the rear of the lodge. Reminded of their assignment, Keira took a deep breath, steeling herself for the task ahead.
Come on, Altman, don’t screw this up.
The ramshackle lodge was intended to look deserted—a hiding place in plain sight—but a sharp eye could detect the signs of recent activity. Noticing that the grass by the cellar door was well-trampled, Keira glanced about nervously, scanning for guards who might come to investigate their activities. Danny tried the door handle gingerly, then more forcefully. As they’d guessed, it was latched from the other side.
Time for Plan B. Danny shifted away from the door, allowing Keira to kneel beside the handle while he readied himself to guard her back. It wouldn’t do to have someone sneak up on her once she began the binding process.
Reaching deep inside herself, Keira gently nudged the mass of energy that lay just behind her stomach. Sending it downward through her feet, she firmly anchored herself to the grassy patch she’d chosen. Then, reaching out for the latch, she let the energy flow through her fingers as her lips puckered in a whistle. Called pneuma, or “breath,” she knew the energy was too high for normal ears to detect. She felt this energy being twisted and shaped to match the waves of sound, and she altered the pitch of her note, letting it guide the pneuma into the shape she needed—wrought iron. All materials, and even people, had a shape to their pneuma, an amplitude and frequency to the energy holding them together. While a person’s pneuma could change over time, the pneuma of objects like this lock remained a constant, unalterable touchstone.
She willed her pneuma to first match the iron’s, then alter slightly, slowly disrupting its tidy molecular structure. The latch felt cold in her hand as it pulled the heat from her body, disordering the molecules that comprised it until the metal was nothing more than a molten blob. Grasping the ledge of the door, Keira eased it upward and heard the wood give way from its metal bindings with a dull thunk, revealing a set of earthen steps that led down into the cellar.
Danny began descending the stairs, longsword at the ready. They’d decided he’d go in first, to stall for time should they encounter anyone, and to give her the space to orchestrate a binding if needed. Following close behind, Keira nearly ran smack into Danny, who had frozen at the bottom of the steps. She halted, listening for the sound that had caught his attention. Bringing a finger to his lips, Danny inched forward again, deeper into the dank caverns of the cellar. Keira gripped the hilt of her sword and balled her left hand into a fist to hide its shaking.
You can do this. Just keep moving forward.
They were almost to the far end of the cellar now, and Keira could just make out the outline of the promised ladder leading to the main floor above. She barely registered the creak of a door hinge before something slammed her against the wall, sending her sword flying as the weight of a massive body pinned her to the ground.
Without thinking, Keira groped for its hairy neck, feeling the fiery breath as its jaws snapped inches from her face. Fear coiled in her belly, her limbs flailing in panic, her hands fumbling for the dagger she always carried at her hip.
Come on, come on!
The dog was squirming now, trying to wrestle out of her grip. She winced as its claws dug painfully into her thighs.
Clutching her dagger by the hilt, she plunged it deep into the creature’s side. Once, twice, three times—Keira kept stabbing, breathing heavily, ignoring its howls until she felt the giant body convulse and finally slump on top of her.
With a massive heave, she pushed its weight aside and rolled away from it. She heard Danny cursing nearby, and the clang of metal as he fought off his own seemingly more human assailant. She searched the floor desperately for her dropped sword, trying to ignore the potent scent of blood. Finally, her hands clasped smooth metal, and she scrambled to her feet, sword at the ready.
At the other end of the room, she saw the opened trapdoor spilling light into the dank cellar. Danny had reached the ladder before her. Keira hastened to follow him, emerging into a filthy larder to see him locked hilt to hilt with one of the conniving Marek Larghaen’s hired men. Keira swore under her breath. They’d hoped to catch him unawares, but it seemed the old bastard had been warned, and had upped his guard to prepare for their arrival.
Keira sprinted toward her grounder, calling his name. Danny looked up and, with a great umph, spun the man he’d been grappling with in her direction just as she reached them. She met his back with her blade and felt an unsettling crunch as it slid through him. The man slumped against her, and she briefly bore his weight before letting him slide to the ground. He gurgled blood as Keira pulled her sword from his back, then was still.
“You okay?” Danny asked in his soft Boston-Irish lilt, quickly scanning her up and down.
Keira nodded. She couldn’t seem to look away from the man at her feet. He was definitely dead—his eyes had that blank, dilated look that corpses get, and she could smell the piss and shit from his bowels, his muscles relaxed in death. Her mentor, Elliott, had told her the end wasn’t pretty, but until this moment, she hadn’t fully grasped the horror that would be her first kill. She swallowed hard, avoiding Danny’s eyes. She wasn’t ready for the understanding and sympathy she knew she’d find there.
Blinking furiously, Keira forced her gaze away from the body. “Fine,” she muttered. “You?”
She knew he wanted to say more, knew the moment when he thought better of it. She was grateful for that—Danny always seemed to know exactly what she needed.
“We should keep moving,” Danny said. “On account of it seems like the others have run into trouble too. We need to get to Marek before he manages to pull off another of his grand escapes.”
Keira nodded, noticing for the first time the sounds of fighting echoing from elsewhere in the lodge. She wadded up her confusing mix of emotions and flung them to the back of her mind. She’d have time to deal with them later. Peering around for an exit, Keira noted that the larder had seen better days. A thick layer of dust and grease covered the chopping tables and cabinetry, but the still-smoldering embers in the grand fireplace betrayed the room’s recent use.
Shouts and curses echoed from the front rooms, but Keira and Danny instead headed for the servants’ staircase in the back of the larder. The steps creaked as they swiftly climbed, making for the bedchambers on the floor above. They paused when they reached the landing, and Keira motioned toward a room on their left, where candlelight flickered beneath the closed door. Someone was definitely inside.
They flanked the door, one on either side, and Danny raised his eyebrows at her expectantly. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the pneuma. Slowly, Keira cast it out on the back of an inaudible whistle, searching with her mind for the presence they sought. The pneuma she encountered was twisted, dark, and calculating, but tinged with something else—a nervous tension of sorts. It was definitely Marek, all right, but he wasn’t alone.
She could feel him pacing on the other side of the door along with two others, most likely bodyguards. Coming back to herself, she caught Danny’s eye and held up three fingers. His brow furrowed. They’d been told Marek had only one bodyguard he trusted to share a room with him as he slept, and the original plan had been for her to muscle bind Marek while Danny took care of the bodyguard. Two guards threw that notion out the window, as she could only cast one bind at a time, and the out-of-body requirements of casting made her useless in a physical fight. That’s why Danny was there—to guard her back during the process, and to help bring her back if she lost control. This would be difficult for him to do while fighting off two assailants at once.
She shook her head, and he nodded in response. Though the mask covered half his face, she knew he was grimacing underneath. They’d have to do this the old-fashioned way.
Danny grasped the door’s handle while Keira mimed the general location of each of the three targets. Her fingers counted them down. Three…her grip tightened on the hilt of her sword…two…Danny’s calm, determined eyes met hers…one!
With a shove, Danny flung open the door and rushed the closest bodyguard. Quick on his heels, Keira sprinted into the room and slammed into the other, meeting his sword with the clang of her own. She cursed her rotten luck—of course they had their weapons at the ready. No doubt they could hear the shouts echoing from the rest of the house.
She didn’t have time to think about this long before she felt her sword drawn up and around in a giant arc, disentangling their blades and putting her immediately on the defensive. She barely blocked a crushing overhead swing. This must be Rhondor, she thought. Marek’s favorite. Panic welled within her. He’s too big.
She quickly squashed the panicked thought and forced herself to think rationally. This is what you’ve trained for. The man was enormous, and the broadsword he wielded nearly doubled his arm’s reach. She needed to get some distance, or he’d skewer her for sure. After parrying his next slash, Keira managed to snatch up a ceramic plate from the table behind her. When Rhondor advanced again, she blocked his stroke while simultaneously shattering the plate against his head. He stumbled backward, allowing her a few precious seconds to regain her bearings.
From the corner of her eye, she saw a huddled figure creep along the edge of the room, making for the open hall door.
Oh no, you don’t, she thought.
Shifting her sword into her left hand, using the other to snatch up her hip dagger and sent it flying end over end into Marek’s side. The man cried out and doubled over in pain.
Keira grinned in satisfaction. That’ll keep him from getting too far.
Before she could revel in her minor victory, Rhondor was on her again, and he was angrier than ever. Keira, remembering everything her mentor Nazor had ever taught her, spun out of his way, letting his momentum carry him into the wall behind. As she turned, she brought her blade down in a sweeping arc, slicing the giant man collar to navel. It wasn’t a deep cut—certainly not mortal—but it was enough to slow his movements as he forced her back on the defensive, hammering her with slashes and stabs. He was tiring, but so was Keira. Her breathing was shallow, and her sword felt heavier with every block.
Rhondor’s wound was bleeding freely now, forming a small pool at his feet. Sensing an opportunity, Keira retreated slightly. Rhondor immediately pressed his advantage and leaped toward her, his foot slipping on his own blood. He didn’t fall, but he definitely stumbled.
That was all Keira needed.
She lunged forward, cutting a single stroke in and up, wedging her blade between the giant’s ribs. He exhaled sharply as her sword pierced his diaphragm, then dropped to his knees, blood bubbling past his lips. She let him sag to the floor, then wrenched her blade free and spun to look for Danny.
He was in the opposite corner of the room, dealing the final blow to the other guard, a savage slice to the man’s neck that left him in a gurgling heap. Danny turned toward her, and she saw a cruel cut down the side of his left arm. She started forward, brows knit with concern, but he waved her off.
“Just a scratch,” Danny reassured her.
She nodded, not entirely convinced, but knew better than to argue just then.
“Where’s Marek?” Danny asked.
Keira glanced around and cursed. “Damn it! He can’t have gone far, not with my knife sticking out of his gut.”
She saw a ghost of a smile cross Danny’s face as he ran for the door. Out in the hallway, he bent to look at something on the floor before motioning her closer.
“Definitely blood. Seems you’re not quite as hopeless at knife-throwing as Nazor says,” he teased.
Keira scowled. “I told you I hit him. Honestly, I’m surprised he made it this far. From what they told us, I didn’t take him for much of a fighter. His type always seems to have others around for the dirty work.”
Danny’s smile twisted darkly. “Never underestimate the survival instincts of a man like Marek. He didn’t get to where he’s at for lack of determination.”
Keira nodded, gritting her teeth. She’d never met Marek Larghaen, but she knew enough about the snake to suspect that Danny was probably right. The slimy merchant had clambered over the backs of his fellow uplanders to become the local Tiarna’s chief tax collector, keeping his power through threats, intimidation, and outright violence. Yes, Keira thought grimly, he was certainly motivated, but that makes two of us.
A clatter of metal hitting the floor brought their attention to a room at the far end of the hall. The two of them stealthily crept down the hall toward the sound, careful to check each room they passed to ensure they wouldn’t be ambushed. As they approached the far door, Keira heard voices coming from inside—laughing, it sounded like. Danny pressed his ear to the door, a puzzled look on his face, then sighed in relief.
Throwing open the door, he and Keira entered to find a cowering Marek, surrounded by four of their fellow Legionnaires. Though masks obscured their faces, Keira quickly recognized their mentors, Elliott and Nazor.
“Nice of you both to join us,” Nazor purred.