The Sanctuary Duet
Ash and Silver - Excerpt
by Carol Berg
The half-faced bodyguard tried to drag me into the cave by one arm wrapped around my neck. I elbowed him in the knee.
Dizzy and confused, I was unsure what that might accomplish, but after so many hours in Evanide's training room, it was wretched to be hauled about like a piglet.
I shouldn't have done it. Nor should I have bothered with any other move I attempted in our brief grapple. Never in my fiercest bouts at Evanide had I suffered such overmatching skill. His fists were very hard and very experienced, and he knew how to inflict the maximum discomfort while ensuring I remained conscious to appreciate his technique. Eventually he left me flat, convinced my bones were dust and wishing the rest of me was, as well.
One advantage of surrender was that I got a good look at the splash of white above the cave mouth. The image of a splayed hand had been carefully cut from white stone and embedded in the gray rock.
Then the bodyguard threw me over his shoulder with shameful ease and carried me into the cave. My senses reported naught but a blur of rock and torchlight and shadows blacker than seemed righteous. Every particle of my being hurt. Yet once deposited on my knees on a hard floor, my head shoved downward in submission, I concluded that naught was actually broken save a tooth. I did not presume that my condition would improve. Anyone who could create the enchantment that bound this powerful man must own a roster of torments so vile I could not imagine them.
"So this is our shadow, the wisp of cloud who drifted in our wake for most of a day." Cold, clear, heavy with dread portents, the voice came from everywhere at once. Whimsy, painted in poison. "So odd he is, don't you think, Voushanti? But with skills, you say?"
Were it my heart's deepest desire, I could not have lifted my head. My hands drooped limp and useless beside my knees.
"Some, lord. Not so much as he presumes."
Inky shadows darted across the stone floor. Whirled in tornadic frenzy. Brushed slowly across the scrapes on my hands, stinging like brine.
Gatzi's teeth, I could feel them—the shadows. Invisible fingers traced the contours of my face and slid down my arms to my fingertips. Had I been able to move I would have tried to scrape them off. As it was they left a sticky taint like pine sap, though the odor reminded me more of the boneyard outside Necropolis Caton.
"The full mask is most curious," said the lord. "Not at all what pureblood masters prescribe, yet these hands have talents. And these silver bands"—a light tapping on my bracelets by no instrument that I could see set my skin creeping—"I do believe wonders lurk inside them."
Only the most perceptive sorcerer could detect magic lurking behind silver's brilliance. Yet Osriel was halfblood, anathema to our kind, one who represented a pureblood parent's careless extinction of the divine gift. In Osriel's case, it was his mother, a pureblood who'd become the mistress of a beloved king and died a few years after giving birth to…what? A charlatan? A coward? Or a monster who dabbled in evil to enhance his degenerate magic? The Order needed to know. I needed to know why he sought a cave marked with a white hand.
"Who is this man of clever illusion?" I said as haughtily as one could from his knees with bowed head. "A shadow twister with a brutish, devil-marked servant?"
A leash whipped round my neck, dragging my head forward and down until my nose touched the floor. Stinging neck and scraped chin testified the instrument was no illusion, yet neither was it made of leather or fiber. The Order's ropes of scorching light tangled limbs, but vanished as quickly as they touched their marks. The frigid tail of Osriel's leash did not let go.
"Insults are a fool's tactic," he said. "Think of something better." The choke strap tightened.
Don't panic. For all he knows you could be his brother's man. He'll get nothing from your corpse. But the world spun dangerously, and I wobbled. The constriction eased half an instant before ending my life.
I gulped breath, blinking until my head cleared.
The strap tightened again ever so slightly, nudging me toward the verge of death. Many people didn't understand how brief a pressure to the neck would kill. This man did.
Dizzy again. No matter resolution, panic nibbled at my belly, at my groin, at my lungs and spirit, even when the pressure relented long enough for my eyes to refocus.
I willed myself calm. Using magic to take a life could drain a sorcerer past his own capacity, warping his talents or obliterating them. One so skilled would know that. But there were things to be learned here. I had to live.
"Dead men answer no questions," I croaked, twisting my head slightly to ease the pressure, perfectly designed to keep one dizzy with terror.
Cold, wicked, mirthless laughter cascaded through the cavern. "What say you, Voushanti? He thinks death would free him from answering."
"I say he is an ignorant spy, lord." The bodyguard grabbed my hair and wrenched my head back, as the invisible leash slid away, its edge keen as a razor knife. Warm blood dribbled down my shirt.
The man in spruce-green robes sat not ten paces from me, perched atop a slab of rock broken from the cave's low ceiling. The height of the slab would put his head on a level with mine were I allowed to stand. From my angle a pale, square, clean-shaven jaw was just visible below the drooping hood. Elsewise one might question whether he was a man at all. His limbs—whatever he had of them—were swallowed by voluminous sleeves and flowing gown.
Voushanti let go of my hair and moved to his master's side. A taint of red gleamed from his ruined eye. His shadow rippled, and his master's garments shifted as if moved by the breath of a great beast. No matter the need to observe, I averted my eyes, my spirit sick.
"I would know what you are, masssked one." The viperous hiss issued from the hood.
The lord's power left no path to avoid danger. His demand left no time to devise elaborate plays. And deception bore its own risks. Yet neither was this his own fastness in Evanore. He had no great numbers of servants and messengers at his beck. Might a bit of truth lure him into revelation?
"I am a historian of pureblood birth, exiled from the society of my kind."
"I doubt that." My heart near leaped out of my skin. The cold, deep whisper sounded just at my ear, as if he knelt at my left shoulder, though he remained motionless on his rock seat. "A recondeur walks willing into a gatzé's den? Next you'll say you've no idea who I am."
The pressure bending my back eased. But I didn't wish to invite more choking, so I stayed still.
"I am no recondeur, Lord Osriel, Duc of Evanore and Prince of Navronne. Rather I am condemned by family and Registry to walk the world without name, face, or home until my exile is reversed. I use the time to learn. Being a historian, I seek out secrets of the past. Powerful as you are, you can surely test my truth in this."
"Oh, indeed I shall." This time in my other ear. I hated that I jumped, even when expecting it. "What leads you to believe I hold secrets of the past?"
"You may hold secrets or not, Your Grace, but this cavern surely does." Using a magical map to come here, he must know something about the white hand. If I was to learn what he knew, I had to offer something plausible of my own.
It was no easy matter to raise up when every muscle and bone felt like a pounded meat custard. And more difficult yet to lift my eyes and face him as if I were an honest man. But he'd bitten my hook.
"The vanished city of Xancheira has ever intrigued me," I said. "A great city founded by Aurellian sorcerers in the days we came to this land. A city renowned for beauty, art, just governance, and most especially, its magic. Then, in the matter of a day, so imperfect history claims, every Xancheiran soul dies and their great city vanishes from the earth, a mystery spawning a thousand hypotheses, but no evidence to prove one or the other as true. I've wandered throughout Navronne listening to tales from mighty hall to Ciceron fireside, while hunting the symbol of Xancheira. Son of a king, you may be familiar with it, a white tree with five branches…"
"I am familiar."
I inclined my back to acknowledge and smiled inside. The shadows had quieted. Though not a comfortable quiet, to be sure.
"Amongst these bits and pieces that make no sense, I've run across mention of another symbol that is very like—"
"A white hand."
"Indeed, lord. Sometimes throughout the span of history, words, symbols, or stories become intertwined, shifting form until one cannot judge whether they are the same or different. My search for the mark of the white hand led me to Lillebras, but there it stalled. I have scoured the countryside with no result. And what should I hear on the eve of a great battle? The Duc of Evanore and a small party—no warlike legion—required a guide intimately familiar with the district. And I think perhaps this lordly prince, reputed a powerful mage in his own right, might have an interest in legends of Xancheira's magic. And so I set myself to find him, and…"
I lifted my hands as if to say here we are.
"Bring him here."
Voushanti grasped my upper arm with a grip like a bear's jaw. Forthwith, I stood an arm's length from the prince. A hand emerged from the folds of green velvet, a hand that might once have been slender and fine-boned, but was now mottled purple, gray, and red, misshapen at knuckle and joint, the fingers curled in upon themselves.
"Give me your hand, masked one, and say again that you speak truth."
I dared not delay, lest I think too much and shade my declarations with untruth. I laid my grimy fingers in his slightly opened claw. It required every shred of discipline I possessed to keep my hand steady. Surely the fires of Magrog the Tormenter's furnace raged beneath his skin.
As a gale on the seaward wall, power rushed into me, sweeping away thought and caution. I clung desperately to the bones of my story and walled off all else. My hope to dissect Osriel's magic vanished along with the world and time and reasons, until I stood naked in a freezing dark while those scorching fingers examined every part and portion of flesh and spirit.
No, no, no! My spirit recoiled from that touch as it crept closer to the raw and gaping cavity in my breast. And then the bitter touch…
Copyright © Carol Berg 2017
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