Stalking darkness, p.1
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       Stalking Darkness, p.1

           Lynn Flewelling
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Stalking Darkness


  A QUESTION OF TRUST

  “What is it? You look like you’ve just seen your own ghost.”

  A desperate ache lanced through Seregil as he looked down into Alec’s dark blue eyes.

  Damn you, Nysander!

  “I can’t tell you, talí, because I’d only have to lie,” he said, suddenly dejected. “I’m going to do something now, and you’re going to watch and say nothing.”

  Taking the final page of the manuscript, he twisted it into a tight squib and tossed it into the fire.

  “But what about Nysander?” Alec asked. “What will you tell him?”

  “Nothing, and neither will you.”

  “But—”

  “We’re not betraying him. You have my oath. I believe he already knows what we just learned, but he can’t know that you know. Not until I tell you it’s safe. Understand?”

  “More secrets,” Alec said, looking solemn and unhappy.

  “Yes, more secrets. I need your trust in this, Alec. Can you give it?”

  Also by Lynn Flewelling

  Luck in the Shadows

  Traitor’s Moon

  The Bone Doll’s Twin

  Hidden Warrior

  The Oracle’s Queen

  Shadows Return

  The White Road

  STALKING DARKNESS

  A Bantam Spectra Book/March 1997

  All rights reserved.

  SPECTRA and the portrayal of a boxed “s” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

  Copyright © 1997 by Lynn Flewelling

  Maps by Virginia Norey

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books

  eISBN: 978-0-307-77500-9

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, New York, New York.

  v3.1_r1

  For my sons Matthew and Timothy, who laugh at the same goofy things I do.

  You’re the best, guys.

  Special thanks to Doug Flewelling, Darby Crouss, Laurie Hallman, Julie Friez, Scott Burgess, Anne Groell and the Bantam folks, and my agent Lucienne Diver for all their support, input, and wonderfully ruthless editing.

  PROLOGUE

  The lean ship smashed through foaming crests, pounding southwest out of Keston toward Skala. By night she ran without lanterns; her crew, accomplished smugglers all, sailed with eyes lifted skyward to the stars. By day they kept constant watch, though there was little chance of meeting another ship. Only a Plenimaran captain would chance deepwater sailing so late in the year and this winter there would be none so far north. Not with a war brewing.

  Ice sheathed the rigging. The sailors pulled the halyards with bleeding hands, chipped frozen water from the drinking casks, and huddled together off watch, muttering among themselves about the two gentlemen passengers and the grim pack of cutthroats who’d come aboard.

  The second day out, the captain came above slobbering drunk. Gold was no use to dead men, he howled over the wind; foul weather was coming, they were turning back. Smiling, the dark nobleman led him below and that was the last anyone heard of the matter. The captain fell overboard sometime that same night. That was the story, at least; the fact was that he was nowhere to be found the next morning and their course remained unchanged.

  The mate took over, tying himself to the wheel as they wallowed along. Blown off course, they missed Gull Island and sailed on without respite through lashing sleet and exhaustion. On the fourth day two more men were swept away as waves nearly swamped the ship. A mast snapped, dragging its sail like a broken wing. Miraculously, the ship held true while the remaining crew fought to cut away the tangled ropes.

  Clinging among the frozen shrouds that night, the men muttered again, but cautiously. Their finely dressed passengers had brought ill fortune with them; no one wanted to chance attracting their eye. The ship plunged on as if helpful demons guided her keel.

  Two days out from Cirna the gale lifted. A pale sun burst through the shredding clouds to guide the battered vessel westward, but foul luck still dogged her. A sudden fever struck among the crew. One by one, they sickened, throats swelling shut as black sores blossomed in the warmth of groins and armpits. Those untouched by the illness watched in horror as the gentlemen’s men-at-arms laughingly tossed the bloated corpses overboard. None of the passengers sickened, but by the time they sighted the towering cliffs of the Skalan Isthmus the last of the crew could feel the weakness overtaking them.

  They reached the mouth of Cirna harbor in darkness, guided by the leaping signal fires that flanked the mouth of the Canal. Still sagging at the wheel, the dying mate watched the passengers’ men strike the sails, lower anchor, and heave the longboat over the side.

  One of the gentlemen, the dark-haired one with a long scar under his eye, suddenly appeared at the mate’s elbow. He was smiling, always smiling, though it never seemed to reach his eyes. Half-delirious, the mate staggered back, fearful of being devoured by those soulless eyes.

  “You did well,” the dark man said, reaching to tuck a heavy purse into the mate’s pocket. “We’ll see ourselves ashore.”

  “There’s some of us still alive, sir!” croaked the mate, looking anxiously toward the signal fires, the warm lights of the town glimmering so close across the water. “We’ve got to get ashore for a healer!”

  “A healer, you say?” The dark gentleman raised an eyebrow in concern. “Why, my companion here is a healer of sorts. You had only to ask.”

  Looking past him, the mate saw the other man, the weedy one with the face like a rat’s, at work chalking something on the deck. As he straightened from his task the mate recognized the warning symbol for plague.

  “Come, Vargûl Ashnazai, isn’t there something you can do for this poor fellow?” the dark man called.

  The mate shuddered as the other man glided toward him. Not once during the voyage had he heard this man speak. When he did now the words were unintelligible and seemed to collect in the mate’s throat like stones. Gagging, he slumped to the deck. The one called Ashnazai laid a cold hand against his cheek and the world collapsed in a blaze of black light.

  Mardus stepped clear of the bile spreading out from the dead sailor’s mouth. “What about the others?”

  The necromancer smiled, his fingers still tingling pleasantly from the mate’s death. “Dying as we speak, my lord.”

  “Very good. Are the men ready?”

  “Yes, my lord.”

  Mardus took a last satisfied look around the deck of the ravaged vessel, then climbed down to the waiting boat.

  Cloaked in Ashnazai’s magic, they passed the quay and custom house without challenge. Climbing a steep, icy street, they found rooms ready for them at the Half Moon tavern.

  Mardus and Ashnazai were just settling down over a hot supper in Mardus’ chamber when someone scratched softly at the door.

  Captain Tildus entered with a grizzled man named Urvay, Mardus’ chief spy in Rhíminee for the past three years. The man was invaluable, both for his skill and his discretion. Tonight he was dressed as a gentleman merchant and looked distinguished in velvet and silver.

  Urvay saluted him gravely. “I’m glad to see you safe, my lord. It’s nasty sailing this time of year.”

  Mardus dismissed Tildus, then waved the spy to a nearby chair. “What have you to report, my friend?”

  “Bad news and good, my l
ord. Lady Kassarie is dead.”

  “That Leran woman?” asked Ashnazai.

  “Yes. The Queen’s spies attacked her keep about a week ago. She died in the battle. Vicegerent Barien committed suicide over the matter and there are rumors that the Princess Royal was implicated somehow, though the Queen’s taken no action against her. The rest of the faction has gone to ground or fled.”

  “A pity. They might have proved useful. But what about our business?”

  “That’s the good news, my lord. I have new people in place with several influential nobles.”

  “Which ones?”

  “Lord General Zymanis, for one—word is he’s about to be commissioned with overseeing the lower city fortifications. And one of my men just got himself betrothed to Lady Kora’s second daughter and has the run of the villa. But of particular interest, my lord—” Urvay paused, leaning forward a little. “I’m in the process of establishing a contact inside the Orëska House.”

  Mardus raised an eyebrow. “Excellent! But how? We haven’t been able to get a spy in there for years.”

  “Not a spy, my lord, but a turncoat. His name is Pelion í Eirsin. He’s an actor, and highly thought of at the moment.”

  “What’s he got to do with the Orëska?” demanded Vargûl Ashnazai.

  “He’s got a lover there,” Urvay explained quickly, “a young sorceress said to be the mistress of one or two of the older wizards as well. Her name’s Ylinestra, and she’s got a bit of a reputation around the city; a fiery little catamount with an eye for handsome young men and powerful old ones. This man Pelion is evidently part of her collection. Through him we may be able to get to her and perhaps others. She’s not a member of the Orëska herself, but she lives there and has rooms of her own.”

  “I hardly think we need the services of some slut to get into the place,” the necromancer scoffed.

  “Maybe not,” Urvay interrupted, “but this slut numbers the wizard Nysander among her lovers.”

  “Nysander í Azusthra?” Mardus nodded approvingly. “Urvay, you’ve outdone yourself! But what have you told this actor of yours?”

  “To him, I am Master Gorodin, a great admirer of his work. I also understand how important patronage is to a young actor on the rise, and to a certain playwright who’s willing to create roles especially for him. In return, my new friend Pelion passes on whatever bit of gossip he picks up around town. He likes the deal, and knows better than to ask too many questions. As long as the gold flows, he’s ours.”

  “Well done, Urvay. Spare no expense with him. We must infiltrate the Orëska before spring. You understand? It is imperative.”

  “I do, my lord. Shall I make arrangements for you in Rhíminee?”

  “No. Nothing’s to be arranged in advance. I’ll contact you when I need you. For now, keep an eye on Pelion and his sorceress.”

  Urvay rose and bowed. “I will, my lord. Farewell.”

  When he was gone Mardus returned to his interrupted meal, but Vargûl Ashnazai found his appetite had fled.

  The Orëska, he thought bitterly, fingering the ivory vial that hung from a chain around his thin neck. That’s where they’d gone, the thieves who’d stolen the Eye from under his very nose.

  Mardus had nearly killed him that night in Wolde. Worse yet, he’d threatened to banish him from their quest. If Mardus had entrusted him with the disks in the first place, of course, it would never have happened, but that was a point not worth arguing. Not if he cared to live longer than his next word.

  His standing with Mardus had eroded steadily ever since. Even with the power of the Eye itself to aid him, he’d been unable to exercise sufficient power over the fugitives to stop them. The Aurënfaie had proven infuriatingly resistant to his magicks and when he’d finally succumbed to the dra’gorgos attack at the inn, the boy, that wretched boy, had outmaneuvered them, spiriting his partner away before Mardus and his men could reach the place.

  Still holding the vial between his fingers, Vargûl Ashnazai pictured the precious blood-soaked slivers of wood inside, slivers he’d gouged from the floor of the Mycenian inn where his dra’gorgos had overtaken them.

  The talisman he’d made with their blood was a powerful guide, so powerful that he’d almost caught them at Keston. But then they’d slipped on ahead by sea and another’s power was growing around them, occluding his own. He’d recognized the resonance of the magic at once. Orëska magic.

  And so Mardus and his men had tracked them by methods thoroughly mundane, while he, a necromancer of the Sanctum, rode along like so much useless baggage.

  Mardus had been sanguine. They already knew where the thieves were headed, result once again of Mardus’ cold-blooded methods rather than his own. One of the river sailors captured after the destruction of the Darter—this, at least, was Vargûl’s work—had screamed out with his last breath what they’d needed to know.

  To be sitting here now, no more than two days ride from the stronghold of his enemies, was maddening.

  So close! he thought, closing his fist around the vial.

  Mardus saw, and guessed his thoughts. “Why not scry for them again?”

  Vargûl Ashnazai shifted uncomfortably. “It’s been the same for weeks now.”

  Mardus glanced over at him, much the way any man might look at another who’s said something mildly surprising. But Mardus was not just any man. As his gaze met Ashnazai’s, the necromancer felt a stab of fear. It was not madness he saw in his companion’s eyes—never that—but something worse, an obdurate purposefulness steeped with the shadow of their god. Mardus might not have magic, but he had power. He was touched, chosen.

  Held in that remorseless gaze, Ashnazai felt the blood slow in his veins. Clasping the vial more tightly, he placed his other hand over his eyes and summoned the image of the thieves.

  For a moment he felt the reassuring pulse of his own considerable power. The inner blackness flowed through him to the vial and beyond, using the essence of the blood to seek its source. Ever since the thieves had reached Rhíminee, however, a veil had dropped over them. Someone had placed a protective spell over them, and the resistance to his magic was fierce and decisive.

  This time was no different. The moment he focused his concentration on their location, he was blinded by a searing vision of fire and huge, leathery wings. The message was clear enough: These people are under the protection of the Orëska. You cannot touch them.

  Gasping, Ashnazai let go of the vial and pressed both hands to his face.

  “No change?”

  Ashnazai could tell without looking up that the bastard was smiling.

  “Then Urvay’s actor is truly a blessing placed in our path. If these two are still under the protection of the Orëska wizards, where better to seek them?”

  “I hope you’re right, my lord. When I find them, I’ll crush their beating hearts in my hands!”

  “Vengeance is a dangerous emotion.”

  Looking up, Vargûl Ashnazai saw a familiar blankness pass across his companion’s face, the touch of the god.

  “You should be grateful to them for leading us to the completion of our quest,” Mardus continued softly, staring into the depths of his cup. “This actor and his sorceress are the seal on that. Patience is the key now. Be patient. Our moment will come.”

  Contents

  Cover

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Acknowledgement

  Maps

  Prologue

  Chapter 1: A Lousy Night for It

  Chapter 2: At the Cockerel

  Chapter 3: Horns of Stone

  Chapter 4: Horns of Crystal

  Chapter 5: Arrivals

  Chapter 6: Mourning Night

  Chapter 7: An Informative Evening

  Chapter 8: Sakor’s Day

  Chapter 9: An Unexpected Ally

  Chapter 10: The Burden of Truth

  Chapter 11: Nysander Alon
e

  Chapter 12: Beka’s Send-Off

  Chapter 13: Watermead

  Chapter 14: The Street of Lights

  Chapter 15: The Hunt Commences

  Chapter 16: Smiths and Beggars

  Chapter 17: Gaie Running

  Chapter 18: On the Scent

  Chapter 19: Tym

  Chapter 20: Mucking About

  Chapter 21: Blood Tells

  Chapter 22: Old Sorrows

  Chapter 23: Revelations

  Chapter 24: Beka

  Chapter 25: Loose Ends

  Chapter 26: Eyes of the Necromancer

  Chapter 27: Rythel’s End

  Chapter 28: A Glimpse of Prophecy

  Chapter 29: Harbingers

  Chapter 30: Night Visitors

  Chapter 31: The First Blow

  Chapter 32: Loss

  Chapter 33: Aftermath

  Chapter 34: Lightning From a Clear Sky

  Chapter 35: Preparations

  Chapter 36: Dark Days for Alec

  Chapter 37: Behind the Lines

  Chapter 38: The Green Lady

  Chapter 39: Torment

  Chapter 40: Urgazhi

  Chapter 41: Peculiar Hospitality

  Chapter 42: Landfall

  Chapter 43: Moving North

  Chapter 44: White Stone and Black

  Chapter 45: Vengeance

  Chapter 46: Paths Cross

  Chapter 47: Just a Stag in the Dark

  Chapter 48: A Narrowing of Proximities

  Chapter 49: Under the Black Sun

  Chapter 50: Vatharna

  Chapter 51: Farewells

  Chapter 52: Last Words

  About the Author

  1

  A LOUSY NIGHT FOR IT

  Sleet-laden winds lashed in off the winter sea, racketing through the dark streets of Rhíminee like a huge, angry child. Loose shingles and roof tiles tore free and clattered down into streets and gardens. Bare trees swayed and clashed their branches like dead bones in the night. In the harbor below the citadel, vessels were tossed from their moorings to founder against the moles. In upper and lower city alike, even the brothel keepers put up their shutters early.

 
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