Just because punching the goblin’s fangs out wouldn’t do those kids any good didn’t mean I didn’t want to do it. Really bad.
Tam grabbed the front of Rudra Muralin’s doublet and jerked him to his feet.
“Talk,” Tam growled.
Muralin’s laugh came out as a strangled rasp. “Why? Or you’ll kill me?”
“I’ll make you wish I had.”
“Hollow threats, Tamnais. You’ll never find what’s left of those spellsingers without me.”
“Want to bet?” I asked.
“My shamans have put up shields, distortions, and illusions, seeker,” Muralin sneered. “Even with the Saghred, your abilities are pathetic. Do you truly think what you call skill got you this far? I brought you here, exactly where I wanted you. You weren’t following spellsingers, elf. You were answering my call.”
Piaras was beside me. “Raine, he’s lying. You saw the spellsingers in their cell. You were tracking them, and he knows it. You can pick up their trail again.” His confidence was absolute. So was his desperation. Katelyn Valerian was down here somewhere.
The desperation part I agreed with. I had to find Ronan and those kids now. But what I’d been following all this time—had it been the real thing or a Khrynsani shaman phantom? There was no time for doubt, no second-guessing. Tam could torture information out of Rudra Muralin, but anything he told us would be a lie.
I knew it. So did Tam. He was looking at me. There was no question reflected in those eyes; he just needed an answer. I’d backed away from him and stayed there. The Saghred was coiling and twisting at the stench of black magic in the air—and at Tam’s nearness. I couldn’t trust anything Rudra Muralin said. Could I trust the power boost of a starving, vindictive, and fickle rock?
I was a Benares. I knew one person whose wits I could trust here and now.
I didn’t need the Saghred. I’d had dark mages, crafty bastards, try to throw me off the scent in the past. It hadn’t worked then, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to work now.
I exhaled and let a slow smile spread across my face. “I can do it.”
I had to. Ronan and those kids had no other choice. Tam’s eyes were still on me. “Raine, when Rudra said harvest, he meant Magh’Sceadu.”
Piaras’s expression was identical to mine, and I’m sure he’d just thought the same two words.
“Magh’Sceadu are the most convenient way to store souls when living bodies become inconvenient,” Muralin agreed smugly. “And they can flow through solid rock. These tunnels run under the entire island—including the citadel.” Those black eyes were on mine. “As enjoyable as it would be to watch the souls flow through you, my Magh’Sceadu can flow into the Saghred’s containment room and feed the stone directly. I just need you to die. I always have a backup plan, Raine. Or I believe the more modern term is ‘Plan B.’ ” Rudra Muralin grinned until his fangs showed. “What’s your Plan B?”
My stomach twisted. Plan B? Hell, my Plan As were rarely anything to write home about. Sneak in, charge out, hope not to die. That pretty much covered it. I tried to keep my plans simple. I’d discovered through near-fatal experience that the only thing fancy tactics gave you was more things that could go wrong.
I had an idea. It was simple, which was just the way I liked it, and even better, I thought it would work. If Rudra Muralin was going to play hardball, the least I could do was throw him a curve.
I showed him my teeth. “You should already know what my Plan B is; you brought him here yourself. You might say you answered my call.” I spoke without turning. “Talon, I need you.”
“The words I’ve been waiting to hear, doll.”
“I need you to take me back to that cell block.”
Muralin barked with laughter. “We brought him in blindfolded, seeker. Or didn’t you notice even that?”
“Oh, I noticed. I don’t need his eyes.”
The laughing stopped.
“Talon, I need your memories.”
“But I was blindfolded.” He scowled at the dead Khrynsani around us. “And they let me fall down a couple of times. I can’t lead you anywhere.”
“I find people through objects that belong to them—or through psychic traces they leave behind wherever they go,” I explained. “They’re called remnants. Since the information that brought me this far may have been contaminated, I can use your remnant to trace your steps back to that cell.” I smiled sweetly at Rudra Muralin. “The same way I tracked Talon and your guards to that courtyard a couple of nights ago.”
“Will it hurt?” Talon asked quietly.
He leered a little. “Will it feel good?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “No, it won’t feel good. You won’t feel anything at all. Just come here.”
He stood in front of me and I placed my hands on either side of his head. “Close your eyes,” I told him.
He closed them, but not before he gave me a sly wink. I needed to get a sense of him, a psychic scent. I didn’t need his eyes closed for that, but looking into those gorgeous aqua eyes would be a distraction I didn’t need. I also didn’t need Talon knowing that I’d be distracted. I closed my own eyes and inhaled with all of my senses. In seconds I had what I needed. Clear and strong, with no Khrysnaniconcocted illusions between me and where I was going.
I opened my eyes and released Talon.
“Gentlemen, let’s go.”
My Plan Bs usually involved thinking fast and moving even faster. When you viewed it like that, everything right now was going perfectly to plan. The remnant Talon had left behind when he was brought up from that cell block was still relatively fresh and I followed it without trouble.
Trouble was what waited ahead for us. Tall, black, soul-slurping trouble.
Rudra Muralin claimed that the spellsingers were going to be fed to the Magh’Sceadu if he didn’t return. I knew for a fact that hadn’t happened yet. I remembered the Khrynsani with Sarad Nukpana last week in Mermeia. The moment the Saghred sucked their leader from the world of the living, every last one of them suddenly remembered somewhere else they had to be. A Khrynsani would take a prisoner; they’d take a life, but individual initiative? Forget it. Those shamans were probably shaking in sheer terror that the moment they fed the spellsingers to the Magh’Sceadu, Rudra Muralin would come waltzing back into that cell block. No one wanted to risk making a decision and taking the flack for any resulting screwups. It was the same in any organization, be it business, government, or a military brotherhood of sadistic goblins—everyone wants to take credit; no one lines up for blame.
Those spellsingers were still alive. I knew it.
I also knew there were Magh’Sceadu down there.
Last week, I’d used the Saghred’s power to destroy six of them. But that was when I’d worn the Saghred’s amulet around my neck. It was a beacon my father had had made nearly nine hundred years ago to let him guard the Saghred from a safe distance.
When the Saghred had helped me destroy those Magh’Sceadu, it was still imprisoned in the vault where my father had hidden it. The Saghred had wanted me to find it, and I couldn’t very well do that if the Magh’Sceadu had slurped me up. The Saghred had a vested interest in helping me then. Would it help me now? I snorted silently. No way. To the Saghred, those Magh’Sceadu and the shamans that controlled them were waiters about to serve it the biggest meal it’d had in centuries.
And Piaras and I were walking right into the middle of it.
I’d wanted him to stay near the back of our group, protected along with Talon, but Piaras had refused.
Yesterday, Ronan Cayle had worked with Piaras on his repelling spellsongs, using mirage Magh’Sceadu as subjects. Piaras had been given five chances to stop them. He’d failed all five times. He knew that and he still wanted to be on the front line with me.
And I’d said yes.
I was either leading Piaras to what had to be one of the worst deaths imaginable, or he was going to be our best hope of stopping those Magh’Sceadu. Piaras was scared, but he was determined. And since chances weren’t all that great that we were going to make it out of these tunnels alive, I owed it to him to let him choose for himself how he was going out.
I didn’t like his choice, but I respected it.
Tam and his dark-mage hit squad followed me, a gagged and manacled Rudra Muralin in tow. We didn’t want to bring him, but we could hardly leave him at our backs, even wearing magic-sucking manacles. Tam said he might be valuable as an incentive to get those shamans to release the spellsingers with a minimum of fuss. When we got closer to the cell block, one of Tam’s men would put Muralin’s lights out. An unconscious Rudra Muralin wouldn’t ruin a perfectly good plan by telling his shamans to attack. It’s been my experience that a bound and unconscious hostage inspired more enemy cooperation than a conscious and defiant one.
A girl screamed in pure terror. She was about to die and knew it.
“Katelyn!” Piaras bolted into the dark.
I swore and took off after him. Tam’s rough hands yanked me back. I twisted and elbowed him hard in the ribs, and the Saghred’s power seethed between us. I told the Saghred to shut the hell up, and glared at Tam the same way.
He turned without releasing me. “Kontar, Tau. Stop him!”
Two dark mages pushed past me and ran after Piaras.
Piaras couldn’t see where he was going. Any Khrynsani shamans would see him coming. Magh’Sceadu didn’t have eyes and they didn’t need them.
“Raine, stay here.” Tam tightened his grip—and the Saghred flared in response.
My response was to jerk away from him.
Tam and his goblins didn’t need light. I did. I muttered a pale lightglobe into existence.
“Keep him here,” Tam ordered the two mages guarding Rudra Muralin.
I ran after Piaras, Tam and his mages right on my heels. Any efforts at stealth had just gone down the crapper along with Plan B.
The bottom dropped out of the temperature; I could see Tam, my breath, and little else. The air thickened with Khrynsani magic of the blackest kind, the kind that created and controlled Magh’Sceadu. The air was hazy with it, disorienting my sense of direction even more.
From somewhere ahead of us came shouts in Goblin, curses, and spells.
Above it all was Piaras’s voice. Sharp, staccato, piercing. Paralyzing. I didn’t know if he was aiming at shamans or Magh’Sceadu, or both.
We ran into the cell block and straight into a nightmare.
Magh’Sceadu, Khrynsani shamans—and every last one of them focused on Piaras and Katelyn.
Piaras had his back to the bars of one of four cells, one arm around the girl. His voice had caught four Khrynsani shamans off guard, paralyzing them where they stood. Piaras repeated the song, reinforcing the spell, taking no chances that one of them could escape. He knew we were there, but he didn’t dare take his eyes from the immobile shamans. His eyes were wide with fear, but he controlled his voice and held the spellsong.
Ten shamans either already had their shields up or got them there before Piaras nailed his first note. Good news was they were ignoring Piaras; bad news was we now had their undivided attention.
But those ten Khrynsani shamans were the least of our problems.
A Magh’Sceadu glided patiently not five feet in front of Piaras. His voice might be holding it off; maybe the thing was savoring the anticipation. It was tall and hulking, almost hobgoblin in shape, if hobgoblins were made of black ink. The cell next to Piaras had been thickly warded. Now those wards were open in a thin line from top to bottom.
Magh’Sceadu were oozing out of the cell one at a time, re-forming once they were out in all their soul-sucking horror. Two were already loose in the cell block; more shapes flowed restlessly in the shadows inside the cell, waiting their turn to escape.
A shaman in fancy robes chanted in a low, sibilant whisper, forcing a single Magh’Sceadu slowly back toward the cell. As he did, a third Magh’Sceadu oozed out of the slit in the ward, a fourth right behind him. Fancy Robes was doing his work way too slowly and far too late.
One of the paralyzed Khrynsani shamans couldn’t scream past frozen vocal cords as a Magh’Sceadu flowed into, through, and over him, leaving nothing behind. The other three paralyzed shamans were about to meet the same fate. The Magh’Sceadu would take the easy prey first, feeding and strengthening.
Then they’d be ready for a challenge. They’d come after us.
That ward had to close.
“We’ve got a minute, maybe less,” I told Tam, reaching behind his back and relieving him of a pair of daggers. They probably wouldn’t do me a damned bit of good, but being a Benares, I wanted steel in my hands.
Tam pulled a short, curved sword and tossed it to Talon. The kid expertly caught it and grinned.
“Protect yourself,” Tam told him.
Talon’s eyes narrowed and fixed on a Khrynsani shaman. “Yeah, that, too.”
One shaman on the far side of the cell block opted for self-preservation rather than staying to fight both us and starving Magh’Sceadu. He had a clear shot at a tunnel mouth on the other side of the cell block and he ran for it.
The shaman closest to Tam drew breath to spit a death curse, and Tam’s armored fist took out most of his teeth.
Tam’s hired help had fully engaged the Khrynsani, and I flung myself to the side to avoid a noxious green spray that sizzled when it hit the wall behind me, leaving it blackened and pitted with holes. What kind of crazed bastard summons acid?
A shaman launched a ball of blue light from the palm of his gloved hand, slamming it full force into the wards on the spellsingers’ cell. The wards blazed incandescent, sending white-hot needles of fiery light at the spellsingers.
Megan Jacobs screamed. I couldn’t hear it, but I could see it. Ronan pushed two of the kids down, shielding them with his body. One of Ronan’s silk sleeves caught fire and he fought his way free of the outer robe before it could spread. The kids whom Ronan couldn’t shield were bleeding in thin trails from where the fire needles had struck.
Tam swore. “Attack the ward, the ward attacks the prisoners.” He flung a particularly nasty orange blast that glanced off of the shaman’s shields.
The shaman smiled and tossed another blue fireball in his hand; this one was bigger and darker, cobalt flames writhing inside. “That was a warning. This one goes in the cell. Tell your men to surrender, or I’ll roast those songbirds alive.”
I could have said, “Behind you,” but I didn’t.
A Magh’Sceadu reared up and engulfed the shaman, wrapping itself around the goblin’s body like living black quicksand. The shaman managed a scream just before his head was absorbed. I thought I heard muffled screams coming from inside the Magh’Sceadu. Then they stopped. Maybe it was my exhausted imagination. If I survived, I was sure my imagination would replay it for me in my next nightmare.
The Magh’Sceadu came for us. Tam tried to get in front of me; I didn’t let him.
The creature stopped, floating there, not more than five feet away. Magh’Sceadu didn’t have minds, but this one was hesitating for a reason, and I think that reason was me—but mostly the Saghred. Last week in a Mermeian forest, the rock had used me as a conduit to destroy six Magh’Sceadu. I was just as scared now, but I didn’t think my shortness of breath was fear’s fault. I also didn’t know if that shaman had been the Magh’Sceadu’s first meal today—the Saghred didn’t care. It just hungered. I also didn’t know if some Magh’Sceadu were smarter than others, but it looked like this one might be.
Only one way to find out. I took a step toward it.
Tam sucked in his breath. “Raine!”
The Magh’Sceadu flowed back the same distance and stopped.
Nothing like a game of chicken with a soul-slurping monster. I think this one realized I was more than he wanted to bite off. Point for me.
“Can you open that ward?” I quietly asked Tam.
“Only the shaman who made it can open it.”
Damn. Tam’s boys were doing too good a job. Half the shamans lay dead or dying. With the way our luck was running, the ward builder was either dead or inside a Magh’Sceadu.
“But I can rip it,” he said with a fierce smile.
The cell block was huge; there was at least thirty feet of shaman/mage battle-infested floor between us and the spellsinger cell. Fists and steel were flying right along with spells and death curses. The Khrynsani started it; Tam’s boys were determined to finish it.
We were shielded, but I’d found out last week that Magh’Sceadu ate shields for appetizers. Control or destroy were our only options.
“Get that ward open,” I told Tam, never taking my eyes from the carnivorous inkblot in front of me. “I’ll worry about him.”
Piaras’s song abruptly changed. His warm, rich baritone turned dark and discordant, the notes booming and harsh. He was singing in Old Goblin, the language of black magic, the language of the dark spells used to create Magh’Sceadu. He wasn’t trying to repel them.
He was trying to unmake them.
Tam spat the exact word I was thinking.
Katelyn Valerian wrapped her arms tightly around Piaras’s waist, pressing her head against his chest. I actually saw Piaras’s shields strengthen. The girl was sharing her power. Piaras hesitated, then wrapped his arms tightly around Katelyn, and his song became a little stronger. The pair of Magh’Sceadu stalking them hesitated, wavering— and became slightly less substantial than before.
Tam said the same word again, this time in admiration.
I saw a flash of scarlet out of the corner of my eye. Ronan Cayle was gesturing and yelling. The wards kept any sound from getting out.
There was a Magh’Sceadu in the cell with them.
The thing had come straight through the rock wall of the adjacent cell. A second Magh’Sceadu oozed through the same way. Ronan Cayle stood protectively in front of his students, pushing them back against the far wall. That was all he was doing. Why wasn’t he fighting, singing, whatever? I realized with dawning horror that those wards did more than keep sound in.
Ronan couldn’t use his magic.