He looked out over the plains, the wind whipping his copper hair and stealing precious warmth. The grasses far below him were brown and dead but still rippled silkily in the gale that howled across the empty expanse. The movement of the grasses, from this distance above, looked like the thick fur of some tremendous beast.
The approaching evening drained the light from the air, leaving the sky near the distant horizon the strange purple shade of a bruise. He fixed his eyes on that lurid smear of color to the west. He shivered in the cold and clenched his fists against the unbearable restlessness that burned in his chest.
The tower had everything a man could want. A wall of bookshelves full of books, a magical stream of ever-fresh water, a fire enchanted to never go out, and enough food to last him the rest of his life. The view of the sunrise from the lone granite spire could make a man believe in something greater than himself. He might stay there forever, contemplating his life and his choices.
Fallon could not stay there one more minute, even if death was his only other choice.
He shifted the straps of his worn leather bag on his shoulders, kept his eyes on the rapidly dimming horizon, and jumped.
The ground a hundred feet below rushed up. He screamed, unable to help himself as the adrenaline flooded his brain. His arms and legs flailed and pin-wheeled wildly as the shifting fur of the great earth beast rose to meet him. Suddenly, something slipped around his wrist. He glanced to the side, the wind and his pulse pounding in his ears, and saw a rope. One end of it wrapped neatly around his forearm, while the other miraculously sailed upward, out of the bag on his back, and into the window from which he had just leapt. That end anchored to something unseen in the spare instant before Fallon would have been splattered against the dead grass below.
This is going to hurt, he thought.
The rope snapped tight around his left arm. Fallon heard a pop, felt a burst of stunning pain in his shoulder. His head snapped down and sideways, wrenching his neck, and his descent abruptly halted fifteen feet above the earth.
The enchanted cord slithered loose from its anchor above. Fallon fell again. In half a second, he landed. His breath left him in a loud whoosh and pain zinged up his right arm from one of his fingers—he’d landed wrong—as his skull struck the ground with a sharp thud.
For a moment Fallon lay still, stunned and breathless. He thought nothing, just marveled silently at the various sources of agony in his poor body.
Slowly, air returned to his lungs. He didn’t try to rush it, nor did he panic. He was too exhausted to waste that kind of energy. Instead he carefully tried to pull air in. Breath returned a little at time. Once he could breathe again, the blood pounding in his ears began to quiet.
Fallon hauled himself sorely into a sitting position. He wanted nothing more than to pass out, but his shoulder needed to be dealt with. He also knew that the current pain was nothing compared to what tomorrow would feel like, when the adrenaline stopped dampening the misery of his injuries and his muscles had been given a chance to cool and stiffen. He reached up and tentatively touched his left shoulder with his right hand. The joint felt strange; the ball of the arm bone was out of the socket to the side, creating a terrifying bulge against the skin. He shuddered and drew his hand away.
Awkwardly, wincing at the pain, he clasped his hands in front of him. He had broken the third finger of his right hand when he landed, and moving the left arm made his shoulder throb hotly. He bent his left knee, then wrapped his clasped hands around it. He carefully, gradually leaned back, pushing forward with his knee and keeping his hands clasped around it.
The bones grated against one another. He felt his stomach turn at the sound and the sensation of it. But the bone slid forward, then slipped smoothly back into socket.
Fallon let his breath out, not having realized he’d been holding it. "Thank the gods," he muttered to himself. Then he flopped back on the soggy dead grass and thought of nothing but freedom for a long time.
“In a place so deep and lightless that no one but the Five Great Heroes had ever dared to venture there, pure evil rattles the bars of an inescapable cage. The nightmare will never rise again, for it will never get free of its confinement. It paces and rages and struggles in vain, imprisoned behind the greatest traps and spells ever created by man or magic.”
“I’m well aware of that story,” Kai’s father interrupted sardonically, drawing Kai out of the tale he’d heard from his friend’s mother the day before. The man fixed the boy with a meaningful glance. “It’s getting late.”
The room smelled of oil and shaved metal, and the light of the two hanging lamps glinted off of well-kept metal tools and grease-stained wooden rods lying haphazardly here and there beneath parchment schematics and sketches. On Kai’s father’s bench, surrounding the small space he had cleared in order to write his weekly letter, there were bits of iron and brass and copper, coiled springs, oil-bright cogs, flat pins, casings, bald key blades and a dozen other less identifiable parts that horded together in tiny mountains across the flat wood plank. More keys and rods hung from nails on the wall behind the bench. This was the workshop where his father plied his trade.
According to the story Kai had been told, the location of this terrible place had been erased from the minds of the people by a magnificent and powerful spell in the year before Kai was born. The spell had seeped into the water and the land, into the plants and the flesh of the animals, until as the people breathed the air and drank from the streams and ate their meat the knowledge dissolved away; until even those who may have seen it themselves had had the knowledge of it obliterated from their minds without a trace.
Of course, a place that no one remembered took on its own magic. Superstitions and myths sprang up in the vacant place where once truth had nestled; the spell had not eliminated the knowledge of the existence of the place or its occupant, only its location. Children who would not sleep were threatened with the Dark Place. A man who had lost himself completely in his cups might awake the next morning and jest that his spirit had visited the Dark Place. And people spoke of the place when they spoke of the poor souls who disappeared into the woods between the town of Ren and the city of Nesbit, saying that perhaps they had accidently slipped into the Dark Place.
Kai had heard the words the Dark Place before, but had never fully understood what it meant. The tale delighted him. He had wanted to share it with his father, since he’d never heard the man make reference to the Dark Place or the evil that dwelt there. The story might be new to his father as well … although it seemed that wasn’t the case after all.
Of course, it was fine that the man already knew. That just meant that Kai might be able to accomplish his plan for the evening all the sooner. He couldn’t be seen to give up too easily, however.
“But Father, did you know—”
“Kai, to bed with you,” his father muttered in exasperation, frowning down with a mixture of amusement and disapproval at his son. “I have a need to finish this letter, and your stories continue to get the better of my concentration.”
Kai grinned, feeling a small surge of victory at these words. He didn’t let it show. “Are you certain, Father?” He let his eyes shine as if he were eager to put up a fight. “I have several more. There’s one about the fox and the milkmaid with the loveliest … ahem, attributes … whose curse gets her lost in the same wheat field every summer afternoon. I promise it will make you ache from laughter.”
The man known in this town as Therin was a slender man of whipcord muscle and a great bushy black beard, snorted and sat down at his littered bench in their small workshop. The locksmith’s gentle, deft fingers found the feather quill unerringly on the desk as he glared halfheartedly at the boy behind him. Kai could see that it was difficult for the man to hide his smile, but he was definitely trying now. “It sounds positively enchanting, Kai, but I have had enough for one night.” His thick, dark brows furrowed as he studied the boy for a moment. “And at some later time, you will be telling me what rogue in this town has been filling your young ears with such wicked stories. Now. Upstairs.”
“Yes, Father,” Kai answered with a roll of his eyes. “Good night.” He turned and climbed the stairs, his hands in his pockets. He let nothing, not even the weight of his step, betray how pleased he was. He reached the darkness of the second floor of their shop and moved toward his bedroom at the end of the short hall, then stepped in and closed the door.
Darkness enveloped him, but that was no obstacle. He reached out and took up his cloak, slipping it over his shoulders in one motion. He extended his hand, taking up his tools and depositing them with a casual swipe in his boot as his other hand selected three copper coins from his bedside table and dropped them into his other boot. The coppers were notched, lighter than the silvers, and surpassingly easy to identify with a single delicate pass of his sensitive fingers.
The only person Kai knew who was more adept than himself at sensing so much with a just moment’s touch, without being able to see, was his father. The skill came from years of working with the small, temperamental gears and pins of locks, and Therin had put in those years for certain. His father had been the locksmith of Ren for all fourteen years of Kai’s life, and it was agreed by all that he was a very fine one. There was virtually no theft in Ren, due in large part to his father’s work. His trade kept him and his son well, and his talent for intricate metalwork meant that he was able to craft many other things when the need for a locksmith was rare.
To be sure, there were times when that need was almost unknown, for each of Therin’s locks was slightly different, and the only two that knew their secrets were the smith and his son. If anyone in the town had ever been able to open one of Therin’s locks without its proper key, they had never announced their success, or made good on their talent by stealing anything of note.
At his father’s behest, Kai never said a word about his own skill. Part of his professional education had been in how to open locks without keys when necessary, but it would not do to have the townsfolk know of his ability, for the simple reason that if anyone ever did steal anything, Therin did not want Kai to stand accused. The youth could pick nearly every lock his father had ever set before him. There were only two in the workshop now that still challenged him, and he felt in his bones that before very long, even those stubborn nuts would click and crack for him.
To be able to, with only a touch, know the way a metal thing’s internal workings would slide and twist and fall when a pin or wrench was inserted was a skill that took years of patient practice and study. Kai had mastered this ability under his father’s instruction. Compared with that almost-prescient understanding, gathering basic information about the metal of a coin or the identity of an unseen object was child’s play. His hands told him as much as, or more than, his eyes.
He had over the years developed a hypersensitivity to how unseen things would move under pressure … and he was just learning how to apply this understanding to people instead of locks.
Tonight he felt delighted by the cleverness of his very simple plan. The parameters of the problem were simple: he wanted to sneak out of the house. Mina had told him many times that her parents always shared a bottle of summer wine on sixthday and went to sleep early and deeply; this was the perfect opportunity to meet up and sneak out into the woods for a midnight adventure.
A plan to ensure that his father would not discover his absence was essential. Thrill and excitement and a chance to finally put hungry hands on any part of pretty, teasing Mina were extremely tempting, but not enough to convince him to take the risk unless he was fairly sure he wouldn’t get caught. His father allowed him a great deal of independence—some in the town had called him downright lenient—but one rule upon which there was never any discussion permitted was Kai’s nightly curfew.
It wouldn’t be a problem as long as Therin never knew.
It had taken him a day or two to puzzle it out once he’d begun to think. How could he be sure that his father wouldn’t check on him? Then it had occurred to him: wait until a sixthday that he knew his father had an important task to accomplish in the evening, and then distract, amuse and annoy him well into the night. He would boast and tell tales until his father would sigh to be rid of him for the evening.
He certainly wouldn’t come looking in on him for many hours, if at all. He had an important letter to write to an old friend, and he had tolerated his son for as long as he could bear for one night.
It was only as Kai climbed with exaggerated stealth over the sill of his window that he began to doubt himself. He had never disobeyed his father with such clear intent before. He had never had reason. He swallowed and paused to reconsider his plan … not its chances of success, but the real worth of it when considering the risk. His heart pounded in his ears. Eagerness and fear warred for dominance in his chest.
He bit his lip, feeling eagerness edge ahead despite his abrupt misgivings. I hope I don’t regret this later, he thought. His stomach tightened as he eased himself out of the window, finding his footholds carefully. It wouldn’t be a problem as long as he didn’t get caught.
“Stop!” He heard a raised voice in the shop below him.
He caught me! was all he could think for a dreadful moment. He jumped in guilty surprise at the sound, his foot slipping from its place atop a knot in one of the boards of the house. He gasped, feeling his other foot lose purchase.
Almost instantly, he realized that the voice he had heard from the shop was not his father’s.
It was too late to recover.
He fell gracelessly, his grip on the rough wooden windowsill failing. Unable to see anything as his feet went out from under him, he slammed his head against the lower edge of the first floor’s back room window. A flash of white lanced across his eyes. Then nothingness.
Aurin Locke, who had elected to be called Therin Smithe for many years now, watched his son trudge theatrically up the stairs with a wry twist to his lips. He turned away and lifted his quill to continue his letter to Siobhan. She would surely be interested to know that Kai had reached an age to tell bawdy tales to his father with no hint of embarrassment. He thought he might also mention the sudden awkward affection the boy had developed for Mina, his childhood friend. The girl was of an age with Kai and had no drop of blood magic in her; she would be a fine wife … or at least a diverting youthful dalliance.
The smith’s mouth curved beneath his beard. If the other citizens of Ren could hear his thoughts they would be incensed by his casual attitude. But he found it difficult to muster any outrage at the idea of such an innocent trespass. There were so many evil things and ugly things in the world, so many that he had seen himself, that he could scarcely imagine flying into an honest rage about any mischief his sheltered young son might get into.
As he heard Kai’s footfall on the top step, the air behind his bench stirred, turning his curly black hair almost imperceptibly.
There were two of them, he knew at once.
“What are you doing here?” he murmured in a deadly voice, taking care that his voice traveled no more than a few inches. If Kai turned and came back down the stairs now, he was as good as dead. Aurin raised his eyes until they settled on the nondescript copper key hanging from a nail in the wall behind his bench and took a deep breath.
“The decision has been made,” a feminine voice answered just as softly. The tone of her response told him much. She was aware that Kai had just gone up the stairs. She did not want the boy to turn and see what would come next any more than he did. And she felt sorrow for it, this thing that she would do.
She would kill Kai painlessly in his sleep. The boy would never know, nor feel any fear.
Ah, Melisande, he thought with a sad pang. The gentlest and the deadliest among them.
“How long did it take you to find me?”
“Nearly a year,” a tired masculine voice answered, not quite as quietly as the woman had spoken. Either Edwin didn’t know that Kai was only a few feet away up the stairs, or—more likely—he didn’t care. The man did not know the boy, and he was a man that cared not a whit for any person but those closest to him. About those few, he cared very deeply.
Aurin had been—perhaps still was, he wasn’t sure—one of those few.
“Why do the Strahlend doubt my loyalty?” Aurin asked in a grim voice, knowing that there would be no turning them back from their orders. He pictured in his mind the action he would have to take; there could be no clumsiness, no fumbling. He must not let them see his movement. “I have more cause than any to stay true.” He stood, his hand rising naturally as he hiked himself up off the bench with pretended stiffness. The copper key was in his sleeve in an instant as he reached his feet and turned to them.
“No one doubts your honor, Aurin,” Edwin responded with a sigh, meeting his eye easily. Of course he would feel no shame for this. “It is your very existence that puts us all at risk. No one of us would ever doubt your character.”
The other man’s stillness told Aurin much. He only had a few seconds. He did not need to examine Edwin’s deep gray cloak, or his plain clothing, to find signs of the weapons hidden there. He knew the location of every knife and spell charm on the assassin’s body, and knowing would not save him.
“I am sorry that it must end like this,” Melisande confessed quietly, her lovely violet eyes half-hooded in a face that bespoke deep regret. She had aged well; she looked scarcely older than when he had last seen her, nearly fifteen years ago. She had been very young then. “We have not seen one another in so long.”
She was the more dangerous to him. Aurin could only deal with one of them; he had no chance to buy even a few seconds with both of them on him. For Kai’s sake, he had to have those few seconds.
“Melisande,” he answered, “I am sorry too.” His brow came down and his jaw clenched. “But I cannot bow my head yet.”
Edwin’s nut-brown eyes widened as he heard the inflection in the locksmith’s voice, but he had no way to save her. Even so, he lunged forward. A fearsome dark iron dagger appeared in his hand. “Stop!”
Locke’s hand rose in a swift arc from where it had hung limply. The copper key flew from his sleeve in a calculated upward trajectory. The gleaming metal projectile struck the white-haired woman between the eyes. With a faint flash, the key sank and disappeared into her skull with no more resistance than if he had cast it into a pool of limpid water.
The assassin halted, freezing in his tracks with cry of awful dismay, as Melisande’s beautiful eyes went blank. The sorrow left her face an instant before her body crumpled nervelessly to the ground.
Outside, Kai lost his grip on the windowsill with a quiet yelp that might as well have been a shriek to Locke’s tightly strung senses. The boy tumbled to the ground, some part of him striking the house hard before he landed.
His father, in the slim breadth of time that he and the assassin stood watching the woman fall, wondered miserably whether the boy had just stupidly killed himself and rendered this desperate attack on a precious friend completely pointless.
The next second Locke’s breath left him as Edwin slammed him against the wall, knocking the workbench aside and sending a thousand bits of metal and wood and paper flying and rolling all over the floor of the shop. “You son of a whore!” the taller man roared, one fist knotted in the locksmith’s stained tunic while the other held the iron blade against his throat. “What have you done?”
This was why Locke had known he must strike at Melisande. She knew better than to get this close to him. She never would have grown so furious that she let her guard down. Edwin should have known as well, but he had let shock and rage get the better of him.
Locke’s nimble fingers lanced out, one hand jabbing into Edwin’s belly above his left hip. The other hand pressed three places just below the shoulder of the assassin’s knife hand.
The other man muffled a scream of agony and danced back from him, one arm grasping his stomach and the other hanging uselessly from his side. The dagger clattered to the floor. “Damn you, Locke,” he gritted, glaring up through the sandy-blond hair that had fallen over his eyes as he bent forward. “I ought to kill you slowly for this.”
Locke glanced down at the iron knife where it had fallen to the floor, his heart racing. A slow death at the hand of this man was a fate he had not wished on many, and the thought of it was so much the worse because of their friendship. He knew the other man might do it; that frightened him more than it should have. “She isn’t dead,” he responded sharply.
Edwin froze again, straightening slightly. His eyes were wary. His left arm still hung limp, though Locke could see his fingers begin to twitch as the man strained to bring feeling back into his deadened muscles. “You cannot think—”
“I do indeed, but not for me.” He smiled thinly and took a breath. “I know well that you would be forced to kill us both rather than accept an offer of ransom. And despite your purpose in coming here, Ed, I would not do that to you.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Then for whom?”
Kai opened his eyes with an effort, then bit back a cry at the stabbing pain in his head. Tears sprang to his eyes, but he gritted his teeth and blinked them away as he sat up. The grass beneath his hands was cool and wet with dew, and the night smelled of moist earth.
He started to put a tender hand to his head, then froze. His father! Had he heard him fall? The man couldn’t have missed the sound he made when crashed headfirst into the house, nor when he landed. Kai glanced around, then winced as the movement made his skull throb sickeningly. His father was not in sight, at least not yet.
Then he remembered the shout he had heard, the one that had startled him.
Why had his father not come running when he fell?
A powerful, irrational fear swept over him. He scrambled to his feet, ignoring his protesting head. He rushed along the side of the building to the front window that looked in on the shop.
Inside, his father stood facing a man in a gray cloak. Between the two men, a beautiful woman lay sleeping on the floor of the shop. His father’s workbench had been violently overturned. Tools and materials and parchments lay scattered everywhere. A dark iron knife lay among the mess.
The boy’s heart rushed into his throat.
The minute Kai stepped in front of the window, his father looked up at him. Then his golden-brown eyes returned to the face of the man in front of him. He said something to the man, but his finger curled slightly at Kai, an indication he wanted him to come inside.
The physical tension in his father’s posture flooded Kai’s mind with deadly understanding. He immediately wanted nothing better than to turn and run. His father always stood calm and at his ease; his moods were as stable and constant as a mountain, even under great stress. Whatever could make him so tense was nothing Kai wanted near.
The only thing that stopped his flight before it began was the terrible knowledge that to leave now meant abandoning his father in a moment of unspeakable danger.
As he hesitated, Therin’s eyes found his face again. There was a command in the golden depths glittering beneath those dark brows that made it suddenly impossible for Kai to disobey.
On legs that seemed made of wood, Kai forced himself to take the few short steps to the door and push it open. He stepped inside, every muscle clenched and trembling. The flickering light of two oil lamps danced over every detail of the scene.
“What were you doing outside, Kai?” His father’s voice sounded so much calmer than he looked. The boy glanced up, bewildered.
The man standing with his back to the door shifted to his right with terrifying, deliberate grace, angling his body so that he could see Kai and was no longer standing in between Therin and the door.
The man was a few inches taller than his father, with sandy-blond hair not yet touched with gray. His soft brown eyes seized Kai, cataloguing every inch of him with the intensity of a predator. His mouth was a flat, tense line in his strong-jawed, clean-shaven face.
Whether it was adrenaline, fear, or the knock on the head, Kai was not sure. But as he looked at him, he knew without a shred of uncertainty that the man was heavily armed with weapons hidden just out of sight. More than that, the boy’s blood ran cold because of something unnamed, some threat that he could sense just from the way the man stood. Violence throbbed from the turn of his boot to the cant of his head, buffeting Kai’s panicked mind.
Kai took a step back, away from the man, without realizing what he was doing. He hit the wall beside the door with his back and froze.
Slowly, as languidly as a snake, the dangerous man looked away from him and turned his attention back to the locksmith.
Therin cleared his throat meaningfully, drawing his son’s attention. “Kai, I asked you a question. What were you doing outside?” His voice sounded almost amused.
Kai blinked, the words sinking in. “Sneaking out of the house.” Whatever apprehension he had felt about his father discovering his plan now seemed perplexingly distant. His head throbbed as he spoke. How could he have ever cared about something so trivial?
“I see,” Therin said with a lift of one brow. He sighed and shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter.” His eyes lingered for a moment on Kai’s forehead. “How’s your head, son?” he asked conversationally.
Kai shrugged, unable to find his voice.
The dangerous man had not looked his way again. His attention was trained on his father. “Aurin, I cannot let him escape,” the man said grimly. His voice sounded so ordinary that it startled Kai. He had expected something more frightening from this man of prey. The name he called his father was unfamiliar to Kai, but the sound of it tugged at a memory. He’d heard it before.
“You will, or Melisande will never wake up,” Therin answered matter-of-factly. He had not looked away from his son. “Come here, Kai.”
Every instinct in Kai’s body screamed against the idea of moving, but the look in his father’s eyes brooked no dissent. Kai crossed the room with a few quick strides, feeling small and exposed until he reached the locksmith. He glanced down once at the woman lying on the floor but didn’t pause.
Therin put one deft hand on his shoulder, took his chin in his other hand and tilted his head up. He studied the lump on his forehead coolly as if they were alone and death were not standing less than ten feet away. “Nothing broken, I wager. Just a goose egg. Serves you right.”
“Yeah,” Kai answered faintly. “I think I’m fine.” His father could surely feel his shaking, but the man said nothing, and nothing in his face betrayed any reaction.
Therin smiled slightly, then turned to glance at the other man. “Edwin, do you see that key there on the floor?” He gestured behind the man.
Two beats of hesitation and the dangerous man’s bright gaze never wavered. Then, relenting, he glanced behind him. “The silver one or the iron one?” he asked in a resigned voice.
Kai felt something small and heavy slide into his pocket as his father dropped his hand from his shoulder. “The iron one,” Therin answered. “Would you hand it to me?”
A little bit more life seemed to seep into the man’s wary face. He frowned, then bent and snatched up the key before turning back. Kai shivered at the way Edwin moved. Too smooth, too fast.
He handed the long, dull metal key to locksmith, who took it from him casually. It was all the boy could do not to cringe as the man came near. As if he sensed the boy’s fear, the man stepped back.
“Thank you.” Therin turned his attention back to Kai, placing his hands on his shoulders, the key still grasped in one of them. “Kai, this is Edwin,” his father said, nodding slightly to the man standing behind him. "That woman there, her name is Melisande," he went on, glancing at the person on the floor. He fixed Kai with his golden-brown eyes. “They will come after you. If you ever see either of them again, try to hide, but never run. They will surely catch you if you run, and that will be the end of you.”
Kai’s breath left him at these words. He recognized the sense of them in the back of his mind, but neither his father’s gentle touch on his shoulders nor the soothing calm of his voice could quell his rising hysteria. His eyes widened.
“Do you understand me?”
He managed to whisper, “Yes.”
His father smiled weakly. “Good. Now …” He paused, and the smile fell away from his face. “I know that you cannot understand any of this, but I have no time to tell you a tale that would stretch for a week in the fair recounting. That is something I regret, for I know you delight in stories. Instead, remember these things. You are very clever and have very sharp eyes—use them. Be brave, and know that I loved you dearly.”
“It makes no difference, Locke,” Edwin said in a voice that sounded almost sad. Another name that Kai had only heard … in stories. Kai looked up at him, and the man looked down and met his frightened eyes somberly. “I will find him sooner or later. The Strahlend may deliberate for a while, but you and I both know what the decision will be in the end.” He looked away from Kai to the locksmith’s face.
For a moment, Aurin Locke’s calm faltered. Bitter regret crossed his face. “If only they had never known he existed …”
“He might have lived.” He shrugged fluidly.
Kai saw his father’s jaw clench. Then the brief heat went out of him, replaced by calm. He looked down at his son. “Goodbye, Kai—” he said swiftly, ducking to kiss his tousled black hair.
Burning tears welled in Kai’s eyes at the catch in his father’s voice.
“—and blessed be you.”
Before he could cry out, before he could say anything, his father stepped back, took the iron key and stabbed it violently into Kai’s chest.
Blinded by shock, choking on pain and terror, Kai felt himself lose his footing and his grip on the whole world. He started falling again.