Table of Contents
NOVELS BY MERCEDES LACKEY
available from DAW Books:
THE NOVELS OF VALDEMAR:
THE HERALDS OF VALDEMAR
ARROWS OF THE QUEEN
THE LAST HERALD-MAGE
THE MAGE WINDS
WINDS OF FATE
WINDS OF CHANGE
WINDS OF FURY
THE MAGE STORMS
VOWS AND HONOR
THE COLLEGIUM CHRONICLES
BY THE SWORD
TAKE A THIEF
SWORD OF ICE
SUN IN GLORY
CHANGING THE WORLD
FINDING THE WAY
Written with LARRY DIXON:
THE MAGE WARS
THE BLACK GRYPHON
THE WHITE GRYPHON
THE SILVER GRYPHON
THE BLACK SWAN
THE DRAGON JOUSTERS
THE ELEMENTAL MASTERS
THE SERPENT’S SHADOW
THE GATES OF SLEEP
PHOENIX AND ASHES
THE WIZARD OF LONDON
RESERVED FOR THE CAT
*Coming soon from DAW Books
And don’t miss:
THE VALDEMAR COMPANION
Edited by John Helfers and Denise Little
Copyright © 2011 by Mercedes Lackey
All Rights Reserved.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1549.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA).
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
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First Printing, June 2011
eISBN : 978-1-101-51595-2
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HECHO EN U.S.A.
Dedicated to the Wisconsin 14, and the teachers, firefighters, and public service workers of the US.
T was nearly dark, and the spring air was turning cold, but Richard Whitestone did not push his horse to any great haste. The road was good, the horse knew the way, and there would be a moon up soon. He had been far too long in London; he could still taste its poisons, feel them corroding his lungs, infesting his body, and he needed to take every moment he could of this journey to purge himself of them. Most people would not have been suffering as he was; most people would escape London after one of the denser yellow fogs, breathe in the clean air of the countryside, and merely thank Providence that they were out. But of course, he would, he
suffered; he was an Elemental Master of Earth, one who commanded all the powers of the Earth itself and the Elemental creatures that represented those powers. Earth Masters loathed cities; Richard, who was one of the most powerful to live even somewhat close to London, had been nauseated from the moment he entered the tainted zone of the city to the moment he left it. He still felt sick, with the very real sensations of someone who had ingested a sublethal dose of, say, arsenic. Now, finally on his journey home, he was able to heal.
Earth Masters seldom left their country homes, where they tended the land and the things living on it. Nothing could have persuaded him to enter the city except the urgings of the Master of the Council, Lord Alderscroft himself. The man they called the Wizard of London was not someone you disobeyed lightly. And to be fair, Alderscroft did not call an Earth Master into London on a whim.
Even knowing that, Richard had been reluctant, but now he had to admit that Alderscroft had good reason for calling him in. While most Elementals shunned the cities, there were those creatures of the Dark that thrived on the filth and decay that was ever-present there. Normally, when such creatures lurked within a city, it was without doing much (if any) actual damage. They merely lived on what was already there. But the unscrupulous or downright evil Elemental mage could make use of such creatures, and as Alderscroft had discovered, one had set up shop in London.
Paving stones and cement were no impediment to something that could swim through earth; the mage had coerced a handful of hobgoblins to steal for him—which was bad enough—and had, quite by accident, discovered that murder was even more lucrative than theft. The Master of such creatures had to know where the valuables were, after all, in order to direct his creatures to steal them. But for a murder-for-hire? He need only give them the right scent, wait until the house was quiet and all were asleep—and turn his creatures loose. The Master had chosen his victims well and trained his hobgoblins thoroughly. The victims were all men and women, mostly elderly, with heirs impatient to gain their inheritance and not particular about how. It was easy for a gang of goblins to weight a victim down in his or her bed to be smothered. It was possible that the murders would never have been discovered at all, but the policeman who had been the first called to the scene of one of the murders by a hysterical maidservant also happened to be an Elemental mage.
Once one such murder had been brought to the attention of Alderscroft’s Circle, it was not long before the others were uncovered.
Since the miscreant had been an Earth Master, it required another to track and counter him. But because he was commanding hobgoblins, it also took one who was willing and able to confront the Dark Elementals as well as converse with and persuade those of the Light.
The only one near enough to London to fit that description had been Richard, and if the blackguard in question had been engaged only in theft, he would have refused. Patience and persistence would have enabled any other Elemental Master to discover the miscreant in time. Murder, however, was another kettle of fish. Richard could not, in good conscience, allow another to take place.
Nor could he permit hobgoblins that had been taught how to murder to continue to exist. Such creatures thrived on pain and suffering, and having gotten a taste of how easy it was to create it themselves, they would not have gone back to their old ways even if their master was gone.
Tracking the wretch through the filth that was the City had been bad enough. But Richard had been forced to take the mage on nearly single-handed; his own Elementals would not (indeed, could not) come to his aid, and the Elemental Masters of the allied powers of Fire and Water had been of limited help. Of all the Elements, Earth was the most obdurate, and the hardest to subdue or destroy. Fire could be extinguished, Water diverted, but Earth . . . persisted. It had not been an easy fight, and when it was over, Richard had been exhausted and sickened.
Alderscroft had urged him to remain in London to recover, and in the protected and warded confines of the Exeter Club, he would have been able to do so. But he had been away from home more than long enough.
Especially considering that his wife, Rebecca, was heavy with child. It was true that she herself had urged him to go to London, and in letters she had supported him in his decision to stay and fight. But the last thing he wanted was for her to be alone for too long when she was so near her time.
Not that he had any great fears for her. She, too, was an Earth mage, and a good one, if not a Master. Earth mages—especially those who never needed to leave their home ground—tended to be robust and healthy individuals. Earth magic was that of fertility and growth, after all. But he had missed her more with every day and longed for her company the way he longed for the good, clean earth under his feet again.
As he passed between the hedgerows, the only sounds were the clopping of his horse’s hooves on the hard road and the occasional lowing of cows and baa-ing of sheep on the other side of those hedges. The homely sounds soothed him, and the presence of the beasts fortified him with their energies.