Something really bothered me. Aside from the near certainty of impending death or lingering insanity.
Rudra Muralin had the spellsingers, but he didn’t have the Saghred to feed them to. Now I wasn’t an expert on evil master plans, but it seemed to me that Muralin had a very large crimp in his. Maybe his age was getting to him. Maybe he just wasn’t a strategic thinker.
Probably there was something going on that I didn’t know about.
If Carnades Silvanus was acting archmagus, he had the final say over what was done with the Saghred. Knowing how he felt about goblins, there’d be icicles sprouting in the lower hells before he’d give Rudra Muralin the slightest chance to get his hands on it.
Somehow I didn’t think Muralin’s plan involved making an appointment with Carnades and asking nicely for the Saghred.
Piaras looked down the dark tunnel we were about to walk into. There were entirely too many unknowns, but one certainty—if we weren’t at the top of our game, we were dead.
It looked like a tunnel, but as dark as it was, we could be walking into a dead-end alcove for all I knew. But that’s where my seeking instinct told me we had to go. Just because it was the right direction didn’t mean it was the best or healthiest direction. My seeking instinct didn’t pay any attention to little things like dead ends or death-inducing goblins along the way. It just told me the most direct route and expected me to take it. Avoiding death and dismemberment was my job.
“So how are we going to do this?” Piaras sounded dubious about the whole thing. Smart kid.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” I told him. “We go to where the spellsingers are—killing or incapacitating any goblins or evil elves before they can do the same to us—we free Ronan and the kids, and if we’re really lucky, we get out of here with all of our pieces and parts intact.”
Piaras looked down at me and blinked. “This is how seekers typically work?”
“Nope, this time I have a plan.”
“Good. What is it?”
“I just told you.”
“I like to keep it simple. You got a better way to get it done?”
Piaras went through the motions of thinking about it, then blew out his breath.
“Should I take that as a ‘no’?” I asked him.
The kid actually snorted. “You might as well.”
Reality rarely settles in lightly. Most times it lands on you like a slab of granite. Any noble illusions Piaras had about what “charging to the rescue” really meant had just been squashed flat.
“We’ve got plenty of blades and blunt objects.” I tried to at least sound reassuring. “You’ve got quick-and-dirty spellsongs; I’ve got the Saghred. Best of all, we’re both highly motivated to survive.”
Piaras didn’t move. “Raine, you can’t use the Saghred.”
“I said I’ve got it. I didn’t say I wanted to use it.”
“But you would.”
“Yes. The Saghred taking a chunk out of me is a small price to pay to see you and those kids safe.”
Piaras’s eyes hardened. “Don’t use it to save me.”
“That’s not your choice. It’s mine, and I’ve already made it,” I told him point-blank. “I’m prepared to do anything I have to.” I jerked my head toward the embassy above us. “If it’d come down to it, I would have used the Saghred up there to get you out. If Rudra Muralin brings out the big guns down here, I will use everything in my arsenal to shut him down.”
Piaras drew breath to retort. I held up a hand.
“Last time I checked, my brain was still in my arsenal,” I told him. “It’s always been my first line of defense, and it always will be. After that… well, I can’t make any promises.”
Piaras looked into the dark. “Blades and magical arsenals. How could anything possibly go wrong?”
I do believe he was being sarcastic.
“I’m scared,” Piaras said. Being a teenager and male, I knew that admission had cost him a lot.
“I’m scared, too. In spades. Damned near everything that’s happened since we got here has been scary.”
Piaras exhaled. “Let’s finish this so we can stop being scared.”
I smiled at him. “Best idea I’ve heard in days.”
I kept my tiny lightglobe.
I figured the goblins could see us whether we had the globe or not. This way, if they jumped out of the dark and tried to kill us, we’d at least get a good look at them while they did it.
I thought I’d have to link with Megan every now and then to locate the cell block. Not necessary. Piaras and I simply followed the trail of dead bodies like gruesome bread-crumbs. The first two bodies had been Nightshades; the next one was Khrynsani.
The one after that was also a goblin—but he wasn’t a Khrynsani.
He was one of Tam’s.
Piaras looked over my shoulder. “That’s not a temple guard.”
“No, it’s not.”
I scowled. “Tam’s down here. He’s come to get Talon. Until about a half hour ago, this one was a bouncer at Sirens.”
Piaras arched an eyebrow. “Talon?”
The bad guys already knew, so why shouldn’t Piaras? “Talon is Tam’s son.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“He doesn’t know. People in Tam’s past would come after him if they found out.”
“People like Nightshades and Rudra Muralin.”
That brought up a thought I didn’t want to let inside my head, let alone ponder. Tam had to have known Rudra Muralin long before he showed up on Sirens’s doorstep. Tam had readily admitted that Muralin had threatened Talon.
“Yeah, people like them,” I muttered.
I could’ve kicked myself. Tam had done it to me again. Goblins didn’t give up information that easily unless it was a diversion for something they didn’t want you to find out. Tam had been the queen’s chief shaman, a master of the black arts. And from what I’d heard from Mychael and witnessed firsthand, Tam hadn’t forgotten a thing. He’d known all about the Saghred when we had found it in Mermeia last week. He’d known what it was, what it did—and he had to have known what it reacted to.
He’d known full well how he would react to it.
He already knew how he reacted to me.
And he followed me here from Mermeia.
Passion set the Saghred off. There were all kinds of passion. Rage was one of them. Vengeance was another.
Once Talon was safe, Tam had said he was going after Rudra Muralin, then any Khrynsani or Nightshades he and his boys could get their hands on. Tam would have enough rage and vengeance to kick any evil stone of power wide-awake.
Talon was still tightly locked in that cell.
One of Tam’s bouncers was dead at my feet.
That meant Tam was down here and he was hunting. If Tam’s black magic got its hooks into him and it got wind of me, I couldn’t be all that certain that Tam would be able to limit his elf hunting to just Nightshades.
Tam had known that, too. He’d told me that some things were beyond mortal control. He knew what his breaking point would be.
Dark power calls to dark power. Always has, always will.
I felt Piaras watching me. “Tam’s one of the good guys, right?” he asked quietly.
A couple of days ago, I would’ve answered that question without much hesitation. When it came to me, Tam had been one of the good guys. When it came to me and the Saghred, I wasn’t so sure.
I opted for noncommittal. “Mostly,” I said.
“How about now?”
I put my blades in my hands where they belonged.
What had happened between me and Tam in that alley was still fresh in Tam’s mind. I certainly wasn’t going to forget it anytime soon.
Tam had embraced black magic his entire life until A’Zahra Nuru helped him kick his addiction. Now Tam was down here after a shaman darker than he had ever thought about being. Maybe. I tried not to think that Rudra Muralin and Tam might have had more than a few atrocities in common.
I pushed that thought out of my head. I didn’t care what Mychael said; Tam would never do that.
Sarad Nukpana’s voice came back to me.
Once a dark mage, always a dark mage.
I told Sarad Nukpana’s voice to shut up.
I’d felt black magic before the Saghred. When you find stolen objects and missing people for a living, a dark mage has been behind the pilfering more than once. The safest way to confront a dark mage was not to confront him at all. Stealth and smarts had kept me from getting myself roasted on more than one occasion. You didn’t want to run into a dark mage in the dark, or in blazing sunshine, either. My family said that if you can avoid it, you can survive it. Other people called it running. I didn’t care what other people called it.
My link with the Saghred was my first personal encounter with black magic. I had felt the seduction, innocent at first, to use my new powers for good to help others. I knew that desire could just as easily twist into using the power for power’s sake, to revel in the feel of it, the rush, the certain knowledge that you could take on anyone and anything, and utterly destroy them.
Just like Rudra Muralin and Sarad Nukpana.
Just what I’d told Piaras I was prepared to do.
Walking down a dark tunnel while Death did some heavy breathing down the back of my neck wasn’t the best time or place to have a moral debate with myself.
My morality would have to wait. Piaras and I had a more immediate problem.
Every elf or goblin we found was dead. I didn’t mind dead Khrynsani or Nightshades; more dead ones meant less live ones for us to deal with. I just didn’t trust it. Just because we hadn’t found them yet—or they hadn’t found us— didn’t mean they weren’t down here waiting. Any surviving Khrynsani or Nightshades were perfectly capable of shielding themselves to avoid detection.
Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.
Piaras and I were shielded, and Piaras had a deadly ditty ready. The ditty itself wouldn’t kill; it’d just paralyze anyone he intended it for. The blades in my hands would take care of the rest. Another Benares family rule was: leave no living enemy behind you, receive no dagger in the back.
Khrynsani and Nightshades and daggers that went whoosh in the dark were bad enough, but they weren’t what had scared the crap out of me and put a twitch in my left eyelid. I didn’t like where we were, and I liked even less where we were going.
The Saghred was thrilled.
The more bodies we found, the heavier the pressure grew beneath my breastbone. Coiled and hot, quivering in anticipation. Maybe the Saghred knew I was prepared to use it. It might also know that Rudra Muralin was down here. Like a really big, very hungry dog that recognized who had kept it well fed in the past, it was eager for its next meal, and was pulling on its leash. Rudra Muralin had used the Saghred to lay waste to civilizations. If he got the rock back under his control, he’d use Piaras and me to pick his teeth.
Maybe the Saghred would refuse to bite the hand that had fed it—and would turn on the one holding its leash. That would be me.
I hadn’t considered that.
My intuition had never lied to me. Right now it was in my face, in a panic, telling me that I was in way over my head, I was going to die, and it was really going to hurt. But I knew if I screwed this up, I wouldn’t be the only one dying. Rudra Muralin was nearly a thousand years old. He’d been patiently searching for the Saghred all this time. His search was over, his work almost done. The Saghred was awake, its containment wards probably now a joke, and an arrogant and deluded elf mirror mage was in charge of the entire freaking island. Rudra Muralin was probably damned near giddy.
He’d probably make the Isle of Mid his first playground.
The air shifted.
That was all the warning I got.
“No songs, spells, or movement,” Rudra Muralin said quietly from behind us. “And the half-breed gets to keep breathing.”
A pair of Khrynsani stepped out of the darkness ahead of us with a tied, gagged, and blindfolded Talon Tandu between them. One of the guards yanked off the blindfold. Talon’s aqua eyes blinked in the sudden light.
A sound started low in Piaras’s throat.
“Khali!” Muralin snapped.
Instantly, one of Talon’s guards put a curved blade to his throat.
“Your voice is splendid, Piaras,” Muralin said smoothly.
“I’ve heard it once this evening.” The goblin’s voice was quiet, but the menace was clear. “I do not want to hear it again. If you make one sound, or so much as clear your throat, he dies—and it will be as much your doing as if you had slit his throat yourself. Do you understand?”
Piaras hesitated and nodded mutely. There was no fear in his dark eyes, just rage. I was going to do everything possible to give him a chance to use it.
“Gentlemen, would you relieve our guests of their weapons?”
His Khrynsani did as told, and unfortunately, they did a thorough job. I didn’t have any steel left on me, and I doubted Piaras did, either.
“Turn around,” Muralin ordered. “Slowly.”
The goblins had lightglobes of their own, and they increased their glow slightly. The goblins didn’t need light to see us, but they knew we needed light to see them. After all, what’s the fun of having a pair of elves at your mercy when the elves couldn’t see well enough to appreciate how helpless they were?
Rudra Muralin wasn’t alone. Mere psychopaths traveled alone; evil maniacs came complete with an entourage of minions.
And I hadn’t heard, seen, sensed, or smelled them coming until they were on top of us.
We weren’t in a tunnel. We were in a room, and it wasn’t empty. Darkened openings in the walls indicated more tunnels. The decor included a pair of chains hanging from the ceiling, each with a sturdy iron hook at the end. Iron rings were bolted to the walls, and there were a couple of other implements I couldn’t identify and didn’t want to. This wasn’t anybody’s happy place, except perhaps for sadistic maniacs like the one standing in front of me.
Rudra Muralin’s onyx eyes were on mine. “Both of you put your hands behind your heads and keep them there.”
When a crazy person tells you to put your hands up, you should at least think about it. When a crazy person with a dozen or so heavily armed friends says the same thing, you don’t think; you just do it.
I hesitated and then slowly put my hands behind my head. Piaras did likewise. I hesitated because I didn’t want Muralin to get the impression that I was a pushover.
“Bind them,” Muralin said.
Strong hands grabbed me from behind. I slammed the heel of my boot down on the goblin’s instep. He swore and hissed, but never loosened his grip.
I called up my power. All of it. If Muralin wanted the Saghred, I’d shove it down his throat.
A manacle clicked on my right wrist and icy numbness raced up my arm and kept going, paralyzing my body with burning cold. Stopping my breath. Freezing my magic. Another manacle clicked on my left wrist as a pair of hands swept my feet out from under me and pinned my legs.
“Hang her,” Muralin said.
My mind screamed fight. My body couldn’t respond— neither could my magic.
Two goblins lifted me and hooked the chain linking the manacles over one of the iron hooks. They released me, but not before the goblin pinning my legs ran his free hand up my body from hip to breast.
When he stepped aside, I saw Piaras sprawled unmoving on the ground.
“Best way to silence a songbird,” Rudra Muralin said mildly.
“If you killed—” I snarled.
“Killing Piaras would be wasteful. I never carelessly discard a potential power source.”
The balls of my feet touched the floor. Barely. It might be enough for leverage or it might not. The cold was gone, but the numbness stayed, though not in my body. I could feel every last bruise I had, and I’d collected plenty lately.
I couldn’t feel my magic. I still had it—it was there, my magic and the Saghred’s power—but I couldn’t reach either one if my life depended on it. And it was going to.
I never thought using the rock was a good idea, but now it was the last thing I could do. My soul appreciated the reprieve; my brain didn’t appreciate the pressure.
You don’t need the Saghred; you can get out of this. Think, Raine. Use your head. Yeah, a hacksaw would be great. Even better if the goblins closed their eyes and counted to a hundred. Neither one’s gonna happen. So think.
Rudra Muralin’s smile was full of fang. He was still just as perfect, just as beautiful. He also didn’t look old enough to buy himself a drink in a bar. Since I was chained, surrounded, and didn’t have enough magic to strike a match, I thought I’d keep that observation to myself.
“You’ve got me,” I said. “Congratulations. Now what do you want?”
The goblin’s black eyes glittered. “I thought that would be obvious, even to an elf. You’re the Saghred’s bond servant.”
“Let me guess—you need me to use the Saghred for you. That’s going to be some trick with these manacles.”
Muralin’s smile broadened as if he’d been waiting centuries for this moment. “No, Raine, I need you to feed the Saghred for me.”