Authors: C.S. Friedman
C. S. Friedman
available from DAW Books:
The Dreamwalker Chronicles
The Magister Trilogy
FEAST OF SOULS
WINGS OF WRATH
LEGACY OF KINGS
The Coldfire Trilogy
BLACK SUN RISING
WHEN TRUE NIGHT FALLS
CROWN OF SHADOWS
THE MADNESS SEASON
THIS ALIEN SHORE
IN CONQUEST BORN
Copyright Â© 2015 by C. S. Friedman.
All Rights Reserved.
Jacket art by Alejandro Colucci.
Jacket design by G-Force Design.
Book designed by The Barbarienne's Den.
DAW Books Collector's No. 1695.
Published by DAW Books, Inc. 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
All characters in the book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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First Printing, November 2015
FOR TANITH LEE
Who taught us all how exquisite the marriage of beauty and darkness could be
Thanks once more to my beta team for all their moral support and creative input: David Walddon, Zsuzsy Sanford, Carl Cipra, and Jennifer Hina. Also to Kim Dobson and Larry Friedman, whose story suggestions led to some delightfully evil plot twists. Bradley Beaulieu gave me some timely and very insightful feedback, for which I am also grateful. (His newest book is amazing, btw, and you all should read it.)
Thanks to Brandon Lovell for his help with Farsi. 'Cause undead Persian necromancers don't just name themselves.
Last, but not leastânever least!âspecial thanks to my agent, Russ Galen, and my editor-goddess, Betsy Wollheim. Betsy's creative input was invaluable, as always; I couldn't imagine writing books without
ACKLIT BY A BLAZING ORANGE SUNSET,
the floating rabbit was an eerie sight. The dappled forest shadows made the snare almost invisible, so that it looked as if the small body was levitating of its own accord, and as it swayed back and forth in the breeze it appeared more ghostly than real.
With a quick and practiced motion, the wanderer known as the Green Man freed the dead rabbit and tucked it into his game pouch. Then he reset his snare.
It was Sebastian's third catch of the night. All had been young animals, without much meat on their bones, but that was to be expected this time of year. Summer's offspring were so busy exulting in their new existence that they rarely saw the snare's fine line strung across their path. The older ones tended to be more circumspect.
With a sigh he settled the strap of the game pouch on his shoulder, ready to return home. The pressure of the thick leather band across his chest conjured an unexpected sensory memory, from a time when the pouch at his hip had contained not freshly killed meat, but black powder cartridges arranged in neat rows. He remembered how
their newsprint wrappings had tasted as he used his teeth to tear them open, spitting out bits of blackened paper as he fed explosive powder into the mouth of his musket. A ravenous beast, that weapon. Always wanting more.
Memories from another world, another time.
The hike back to his new base camp was a long one, and by the time he reached it the sunlight was nearly gone.
I should have gone to Shadowcrest with them,
Not a night passed that he didn't think about the three young people from his homeworld, or regret that he had sent them to face the Shadows alone. Yes, it had seemed the logical choice to make at the timeâthe only rational choice, one might argueâbut that didn't make it any easier to accept. Once, long ago, he had failed to protect his own child, and she had died as a result. Now these young people had needed him, and he had abandoned them
I was a prisoner in Shadowcrest once,
he reminded himself.
There are wards all over the place that no doubt are still attuned to my presence. Had I remained with Jessica and her friends, I would have triggered those alarms. The only chance they had to sneak past the Shadows' security was to go in without me.
Such a thing might indeed be true. But guilt was a visceral torment, not so easily banished.
What happened to the teens from Terra Colonna after he had parted company with them? He knew that the Blue Ridge Gate had been destroyedâeven the Shadows couldn't keep something that big a secretâbut his informants had been unable to bring him any specifics on the matter. Had Jessica and her friends made it back to their own world, or remained trapped in this one? Or worse yet, had they become lost in that place between the worlds that all sane men feared? He might have been trapped in that nightmare realm himself, had he tried to cross over with them.
As he approached his camp the trees began to thin out, and the dirt beneath his feet gave way to patches of naked stone, windswept and lifeless. From here he could see the opening of the crevice he
now called home, a deep black gash in the mountainside. The cave that he'd located halfway up one of its walls wasn't the most luxurious shelter, but these days caution trumped comfort. He didn't think the Colonnans would tell anyone about him, but the local boy they'd been travelling with was a wild card. And if Jessica and her friends were taken prisoner, their willingness to talk would cease to be a significant factor. Both the Seers and the Domitors had the means of squeezing secrets from a human mind, and if the Shadows decided to question the teens, their methods did not bear thinking about.
He had almost been at the receiving end of those methods, once.
What was the name of the local boy who'd been travelling with them? Isaac? So pale, that one. So haunted. The edge in the boy's voice when he'd asked Sebastian about a murdered Shadowlord had been unmistakable, but what exactly was Isaac's connection to that secretive Guild? Clearly he was not a Shadow himself: no one born to that Guild would have been allowed to wander the world without supervision as he was doing. But his family might have business ties to a Shadowlord, or perhaps some sort of political alliance, that gave Isaac a vested interest in the undead. So did he seek out the Shadows after he left Sebastian, and tell them what he'd learned about the Green Man? Did he tell them that the possible murderer of a Shadowlord was hiding out in Victoria Forest, and might be located by following the trail of dead vegetation he left in his wake?
It wasn't the truth, exactly. But Sebastian doubted that would matter to the Shadowlords.
I should have killed the boy when I had the chance,
he thought. But even in the midst of war he'd had no stomach for killing innocents, and the boy had done nothing to harm him. Not to mention Isaac had helped the three Colonnans escape from the Warrens, so that Sebastian could meet them. That deserved a better answer than death.
I saved his life as well as theirs,
he reminded himself.
Hopefully that will earn his silence.
There were just too many variables in play. Even for a man who
thrived on mysteries, it was an uncomfortable situation. So he had broken camp after they left and moved to a place that was naturally barren, where his curse would not give him away. It was a desolate, unpleasant location, but its inherent lifelessness would mask his presence.
Maybe I should leave this forest altogether.
How long had he been here, anyway? Ten years? More? True, Victoria Forest was only a base of operationsâhis endless search for information kept him constantly on the moveâbut there was danger in remaining anywhere too long. Maybe it was time to move on.
Suddenly he saw something on the ground ahead of him, a mark imprinted in a narrow strip of soil. The fading sunlight made it hard to see, so he had to squat down low to be able to make out its details.
A paw print. Wolf sign.
Larger than any natural paw print should be.
He drew out his knife and quickly rose to his feetâbut it was already too late. Something massive burst from the forest with unnatural speed and barreled into him from behind, sending him crashing to the ground. Only by thrusting both hands out in front of him could he keep from smashing his head into bare rock, but in doing that he lost hold of his knife. Now he had only his hands, his wits, and a thick leather coat to protect him from the beast's assault.
He could feel the great wolf's jaws closing around his neck, trying to crush his windpipe, and he barely managed to evade them; dagger-like teeth pierced the heavy collar of his coat, coming within a hair's breadth of tearing out a chunk of his neck. The beast jerked back with a growl of rage, ready to try again. But this time Sebastian was ready. He twisted around and elbowed it on the side of its head, hard enough to stun it for a second, then managed to reach out and grab his knife: long and sharp and tempered in the blood of bears and mountain lions and men, it had never failed him.
Now they both were armed.
The wolf lunged for his throat again but he twisted lithely out of its way, and all it got this time was a mouthful of coat lapel. It jerked its head back and forth wildly, tearing at the garment as if it was raw
flesh. Sebastian's fettered brooches broke loose and flew in every direction while he thrust at the creature, aiming for its gut, but the wolf's wild movements skewed his aim, and he sliced into its shoulder instead. As the beast's hot blood splattered everywhere Sebastian yanked his blade free, bracing himself for the next attack.
Then he looked into the wolf's eyes, sensed the cold human intelligence behind them, and he knew that this was more than a simple attack.
He stabbed at the animal again, but instead of renewing its attack the wolf backed away, leaving Sebastian's blade to slice through empty air. He had misjudged the thing: it didn't want to kill him, only force him to the ground and scatter his protective fetters beyond reach. Dark figures rushed in from all sidesâfour? six? eight?âand though they were human in shape they were bestial in their ferocity. Sebastian struggled to get to his feet before they had a chance to engage him, but there was no time. No time. The fetters that might have helped him escape glittered on the ground surrounding them, reflecting the last of the sunlight in tiny points of fire. Even the nearest ones were hopelessly out of reach.
The ambush had been well planned.
Ingrained reflexes took over as the shadowy figures fell upon him. He moved automatically, channeling combat instinct from his soldiering days, kicking out sideways to sweep the legs of the first man out from under him. Then another assailant moved in and Sebastian rolled deftly away from him, grabbing the arm of a third who was swinging a weapon at his head. He used that man's own momentum to yank him off his feet and send him sprawling to the ground. He tried to send him straight into one of the other attackers, but he wasn't as agile as he had been in his youthânor as strongâand the maneuver fell short. Then some kind of impact weapon struck him from behind, between his shoulder blades, and for a moment the whole world was awash in crimson. Half blinded from pain, he kicked out wildly in the direction the blow had come from, hoping to drive his attacker back just long enough for him to recover his bearings.
But there were just too many of them, and now that they had him surrounded even a soldier in his prime would have been hard pressed to prevail against such numbers. And he was not that, by a long shot. Usually he had fetters to bolster his strength or sharpen his reflexes, but they were out of reach, and though he fought with the ferocity of a cornered animal, he knew that a single hunting knife was not enough to save him.
He was going to die tonight. After so many years of tempting fate, of walking a tightrope between treacherous patrons and powerful enemies, his time had finally come. A terrible sadness filled his heart, but also determination. Very well. If these were the men who would remove the Green Man from Terra Prime, he'd give them scars to remember him by. Maybe even take one or two of them out before he died.
But then something struck him on the side of the head with numbing force, and the world began to spin wildly about him. Vomit surged into his throat and he swallowed it back with effort, knowing that surrendering to sickness meant surrendering to death. And he wasn't ready to die yet.
Blackness was closing in from the corners of his vision, and a terrible keening sound filled his ears, drowning out the ruckus of combat. He shook his head to clear it, and instantly regretted the move. Spears of pain shot through his skull. The world was growing darker each second.
Drawing in one final breath, he braced himself for the death blow that was sure to come.
But then hands grabbed him by the upper arms and hauled him to his feet. Someone jerked his knife from his hand, and he was helpless to stop them. Spears of agony lanced through his shoulders as his arms were pulled roughly behind his back, but the pain was a strangely distant thing, as if it belonged to someone else. His wrists were being bound behind his back. A stranger's wrists.
These men hadn't come to kill him. Whoever had sent them here wanted the Green Man taken alive.
It was his last thought as darkness claimed him.
Light. Too much light. It made his eyes hurt.
But pain was good. Pain meant that he was still alive.
He squinted, trying to bring the world into focus. His head throbbed, as did his neck, his chest, and every other part of his body. But it wasn't the kind of sharp pain one would expect from shattered bones and torn flesh. That pain was gone; this was only its memory.
Someone must have healed him.
Slowly his surroundings came into focus. He was in a small room, dimly lit by a single glow lamp; once his eyes adjusted he found it a comfortable illumination. He was lying on some kind of bed or couch, and there were two people standing over him, armed men dressed in uniforms he didn't recognize. Had they been among those who attacked him in the woods? He tried to move, and discovered to his relief that he wasn't bound. As he sat up, the guards made no effort to restrain him.
He discovered he'd been lying on an opulent couch, deep crimson velvet with coordinated brocade pillows. The room looked like some kind of study, with bookcases and a desk of dark wood, polished to a glassy shine. He was hardly ungrateful to find himself in such benign surroundings, but where in God's name was he? Who would assault him in the woods like that, then heal him and bring him here? It made no sense.
A door at the far end of the room suddenly opened. The woman who entered was dressed entirely in white; in the dim room she seemed to give off a light of her own.