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Something is wrong in the city—a vile knot of villainy that beckons Gael and Keir with the magical lodestone they seek while threatening their lives and their secret.

Gael, an illicit mage, hunts redemption with Keir, a gifted healer who helps all who cross her path. Gael loves her loyalty to her calling—and to him—but has grown inured to the fact that they will never hold each other in more than high regard.

Together they seek a cure for the accursed affliction that not only erodes their bodies and minds, but keeps them apart. The lodestone that harbors their salvation lies hidden in riverine Hantida.

But when they enter the city’s gates, the dark mystery lairing there catches them in its claws.

Reavers comb Hantida’s streets and squares by night, crashing their gauntleted fists on a residence gate or a workshop door, and taking a child, a grandmother, or some sleeping fool who thought himself safe.

Always the reavers emerge from the imperial palace at the city’s heart and return to it before daybreak with their captive—just one—who is never seen again.

When the bronze-mailed warriors set their sights on a little girl with horrific burns, the travelers come face to face with the threat.

But more than mere violence lurks behind the abductions. They conceal a rotten core of secrets, intrigue, and conspiracy that Gael and Keir must penetrate while hanging on to their lives and holding true to their quest.

A tale of adventure in a vivid world of magic, shadows, and exotic peril.
 

Join Gael and Keir on their hunt for the lodestone…

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 93)

He found Arnoll—and no one else—awaiting him in the blade smithy, as planned. Thank Tiamar that no curious spectators had come to watch. Or if they had, Arnoll had ushered them out.

Shadow dimmed the unpeopled vaults, and the charcoal within the forge glowed redly, illuminating the large cedar tub full of water standing before it, as well as a massive stone block with a smooth convex top and a thick layer of sand protecting the flagstone floor. The eastern wall of the smithies possessed no arrowslits through which the sun could slip its morning rays.

The silence of the space, broken only by the subdued hiss of the single forge, seemed wrong to Gael, but the familiar scent of burning charcoal reassured him.

He eased the gong from his back onto the stone, noting that the curve of the one matched the curve of the other. He’d chosen to transport the gong himself, tying a leather thong through the two holes pierced in the gong’s furled edge and slipping a leather strap through the thongs. That had given him sufficient grip to manage the thing. It was heavy, heavier even than an oxhide ingot, and had pressed uncomfortably into his shoulders, but was not so unwieldy as to require two to carry. He preferred to involve as few others in this business as possible.

He greeted Arnoll and gestured to the gong resting on the massive stone. “You do remember that Nathiar will suspend the gong midair with his magery, do you not?” he asked.

“Of course,” answered the smith. “But I deemed it wise to have a support available in case the magus slips. The swords he’s manipulated are considerably lighter than this gong.”

Gael nodded. “Good point.” He scanned the area. Arnoll had laid tongs and hammers ready to hand on a counter, along with two leather aprons and three pairs of smith’s gauntlets. The smith’s own apron already covered his tunic and trews.

“What of those questions you promised to have ready for me?” asked Gael.

They went over the procedure they planned to follow together. When Nathiar joined them in mid-discussion, Gael explained that he wished to pull a small droplet out at the earliest moment possible, with its lattice unchanged, before they proceeded with the steps that would quell the gong forever. That change in plan required a few adjustments, but nothing substantive.

Arnoll proved to have fewer queries than did Nathiar. It was not the magery that concerned the magus, but the interface between it and the rude physical implements of smithwork, especially since Arnoll’s suggestions—made after Gael’s initial consultation with Nathiar in the cherry glade—had all involved the forge and the timing and duration of its use.

Arnoll and Nathiar argued vociferously about how the gong would be removed from the forge, the smith asserting that he and Gael should lift it with tongs, while Nathiar insisted that manipulating the energea would be smoother if he took the gong from a steady bed of coals rather than from tongs held by potentially wobbling troll arms. Arnoll objected to the idea that his arms might wobble, but Gael interceded that his own probably would.

“Is the forge hot enough for us to begin?” Gael asked. He could feel the heat rolling from its glowing maw.

Arnoll narrowed his eyes, measuring the color of the light cast. Then he studied his companions. “The forge is ready, but you are not,” he said, jerking his head at the aprons and gloves.

Nathiar was wearing his usual long robes. Arnoll sniffed disapprovingly. Even Gael could see that a smith’s apron would reach merely to Nathiar’s knees, but at least the suede of his robes would protect his legs from any stray sparks or splashing metal. Not that they expected to be dealing with molten metal.

Gael had chosen the same shabby trews and short tunic that he’d donned to search Martell’s smithy for a misplaced ingot, twenty-five days ago. One of the leathers grooms had cleaned the soot from its worn suede far more effectively than Gael had deemed possible.

Nathiar permitted Arnoll to help him with an apron, but he declined the gauntlets, saying in an exasperated tone, “I’ll need the finest control of my fingers for this, and I have no intention of touching the heated gong with anything but magery, my dear Arnoll.”

Gael accepted both apron and gloves. Aside from the subdivision of the node, his part in this would be anything but delicate, and the bulky leather enclosing his hands would not impede him in the slightest.

Arnoll checked the forge again, and then took up one set of tongs, nodding for Gael to grab the others.

They positioned themselves on each side of the gong.

Gael scrutinized the artifact a moment. It looked just as it had when he first set eyes upon it, the wide and shallow curve of the bronze—a rosy golden shade under the frost of the arsenic—with its deep furled lip and the protruding central boss of black iron. The phoenix etched in the metal curled its wings around that boss, from which scrolling rays emanated, arcing outward like energea from a node, hinting at the energetic structure within.

Gael’s reason regretted what he was about to do, but a more primal instinct, remembering the weakness that shivered in his bones when the gong sounded, hungered for the artifact’s destruction.

Well, he would not be truly destroying it—turning it into a puddle of molten metal, as the word destruction implied to him—but his actions would diminish its present caliber.

With both hands, he maneuvered his tongs over the deep-furled lip and clamped them closed. Arnoll mirrored him and nodded. Together, they raised the convex disk from the stone where Gael had laid it.

It was far heavier held thusly, pinched between the business end of the tongs and secured there only by the strength of Gael’s double grip, the length of the tongs acting as an unfavorable lever. Gael clenched his fists harder and moved in sync with Arnoll toward the forge. The heat grew fierce at its maw, baking the unprotected skin of his face and drying his eyes.

He and Arnoll eased their burden through the slot of the forge’s opening—barely wide enough to accommodate it—and then released the grip of the tongs to push the gong into the heart of the glowing coals.

Gael backed away, eager to escape the inferno, but Arnoll lingered, apparently untroubled, rearranging the scattered charcoal with a shovel, restoring the disturbed pieces to a smooth mound. When he got it to his liking, the smith moved to the bellows at the side of the forge and began pumping. Shuff, shuff, shuff, whispered the bags of leather. Flames leaped up around the gong, and the roar of the furnace intensified.

Arnoll glanced over his shoulder to where Nathiar stood watching, quietly intent.

“Be ready,” the smith warned. “The bronze will heat much more quickly than the iron.”

Nathiar nodded, his face saturnine, lit from below by the glow from the forge.

Gael peered into the flames. The bronze was acquiring a deep red hue as it heated, but the central boss of iron remained black. He looked down to check that his leather apron hung straight and that his gauntlets fully covered his forearms. He would not be handling metal going forward, but he would need to come close to play his part, and he must stand ready to step in, should Nathiar falter.

As the heating bronze grew amber in hue, the black of the iron boss began to display a dark red tint. Nathiar would heat the iron to full pliancy, but using the forge to do the first stage of the work would allow the magus to reserve his strength for the demands of the critical later stages.

The amber glow of the bronze grew golden, while the iron’s dark red moved toward orange.

“Now,” said Arnoll.

Nathiar raised his arms, curling his fingers and straightening them.

The gong rose to hover above the burning coals amidst a shower of sparks, then slid from the forge’s throat when Nathiar beckoned. His arms pulsed, pulsed again, and went abruptly still while his fingers wove patterns. The gong stopped in midair, directly above the curved stone from which Arnoll and Gael had lifted it.

Gael allowed his inner sight to open, and his vision became much more complex.

Beams of green energea shot from Nathiar’s palms, mingling, and then widening to form a pillow beneath the gong. Intermittent needles of blue energea sparkled from the fingers of his left hand, jabbing into the gong’s central boss, while more languid curls of silver energea emerged from the fingers of his right hand to caress the bronze surrounding the iron boss.

The energetic structures within the gong itself shone amidst Nathiar’s working—the glowing green heart node and the silver arcs scrolling into and out of that heart.

The complexity of Nathiar’s magery was impressive. Gael would not have been able to manage the conflicting forces, but he understood what the magus achieved with his skill: support for the gong with the energea pouring from his palms, while increasing the friction—and thus the heat—in the iron with his left fingers, and drawing excess heat from the adjacent bronze with his right.

As the iron grew hotter yet, its orange glow brightening to amber and then fierce yellow, Nathiar added yet another gambit to his manipulation of the energea. Index and middle fingers on both hands continued to feed heat into the iron, while drawing it out of the bronze, but the other two fingers wove a horn-shaped funnel of green and aqua sparkles. This was the energetic shunt that would safeguard them at the moment of greatest danger.

Gael removed his attention from Nathiar’s superlative mastery, focusing instead on the gong’s heart node. There glowed its soft green corona; there shone its more intense green mantle; and there blazed its dense green core. Within the core, the octahedral lines of force grew brighter as Nathiar poured more and more heat-producing energea into them.

But Gael’s full focus rested on neither Nathiar nor the metal growing ever more pliable within the crucible of magery. It was the slow transformation of the octahedral lattice that would tell Gael when he must act. First the edges of the octohedrons grew thicker, brighter. Then those edges developed a curve, and the vertices—each formed where three edges came together in a point—extruded a needle-like projection.

Gael shivered, despite the heat rolling off the gong.

The spiky configuration of the node’s lattice depicted by Olluvarde’s murals had seemed beautiful in the delicacy of its stone traceries. Hovering before Gael’s riveted gaze as energea, the lattice emanated menace. It almost sizzled, fierce with power. Gael had not been wrong in assessing this proceeding as perilous. Every aspect of it held danger. Should Nathiar drop the gong, the softened metal would splash under the impact, burning all it touched. Should Nathiar loose control of his magery, Belzetarn itself might melt down, as had that outpost under the death throes of the old magus Fuwan.

But now that Gael confronted the enkindled lattice of the gong’s heart node, he knew that it posed a greater risk than any other facet of this business. And Nathiar’s shunt for excess energea, still in its formative stages, was nowhere near complete yet.

Gael became aware of hoarse breathing nearby. Was he panting in terror?

No, he stood poised, ready to bombard the node’s lattice with precisely measured pulses of his own energea, drawn from the violet of his crown node, modulated through the blue of his throat node and the aqua of his thymus node, channeled down his arms—deliberately avoiding his own heart node—and out through his fingers.

It was Arnoll who stood beside him, on Gael’s left, breathing heavily, no doubt observing the gong’s heart node through his own inner sight, and rightfully alarmed by what he saw.

Gael could spare none of his attention to reassure the smith. His moment approached rapidly.

The octahedral lines of force thickened and brightened. The spikes growing from the vertices elongated. The entire configuration flashed searing gold.

Now!

Gael pulled from his crown node, pulsing the pull in smooth undulations, creating the perfect flow of oscillating violet energea along the arc from crown to throat, from throat to thymus, and down the arms.

Just as the violet sparks jumped from his fingertips, the golden spikes of the lodestone’s octahedron thrust outward as though they were pikes wielded by heavy infantry, aimed at the hearts of their enemies.

Gael yanked his concentration from his crown node, dropping unregarded the delicate cascade of violet sparks—intended to tease out a hazelnut-sized sphere of iron, with its energea lattice intact.

He grabbed frantically for his thymic energy instead.

No matter that he’d not harvested his droplet, no matter that the energetic shunt was yet unready. He had to act now, or they were all dead.

He was not fast enough.

A gout of flaring green erupted from somewhere to Gael’s left.

Traveling ahead of Gael’s blaze of aqua and blue, the glaring emerald torrent slammed into the aching gold at the heart of the gong, ripping it asunder in an engulfing explosion of black-edged lightning.

Gael cursed.

The tumult of energea coruscated blindingly and then subsided, revealing the heart node of the gong to be entirely transformed. An open lattice of scrolling gold had replaced the tightly packed octohedrons, and the light glowing from the new lattice shone gold, not green. The silver arcs radiating from the node quivered slightly, adjusting their points of attachment.

It was done. The gong had been subdued.

But not by Gael.

He heard a pattering, as of raindrops falling on a beach, and then the thud of something heavy, meaty. His inner sight closed as his eyelids sprang open.

Arnoll lay crumpled at Gael’s feet, skin gray and eyes starting.

Gael fell to his knees, reaching for Arnoll’s neck to check his pulse, pressing his palm to Arnoll’s chest, desperate for a heartbeat, then cupping Arnoll’s face between his hands, patting his cheek.

“Arnoll! Arnoll!”

There was no response, no heartbeat, no pulse, no life.

“Dear gods!” Gael choked.

He’d lost his friend. His closest friend. His dearest friend. The friend he trusted the most.

He pressed his ear to Arnoll’s unmoving chest, praying he was wrong, praying to hear a flutter of breath, the renewed rhythm of a beating heart.

Nothing.

He crouched there, head resting on Arnoll’s chest, the aching spear of loss piercing his own heart. The vague sense that Nathiar still suspended the gong above him, still continued the magery needed to finish the operation they’d begun, barely brushed Gael’s awareness as the gong moved away, the radiance it shed dimming and then quenched utterly as the hissing roar of steam arose from the cedar tub of water.

Gael ignored it all, embracing the dead body of one he could not bear to let go.

*     *     *

Next scene: coming June 23.

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 92)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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