*Though it hasn’t undergone a professional edit yet, this is the first chapter from my novel, Where Light Devours. Remember that if you’d like you can refer to the map in the category section.
She paused her beloved mare and raised the goggles beneath her hood.
Ahead, the sunlight caught on the twisted metal crowning Rusted Mound. Her eyes unfocused and the old tales her father told resurfaced. Some said the mound covered the remains of a giant structure dating back to the Old Empire. Had her father believed the hill was a ravaged glimpse into the past? The faded memory and the answers it might hold refused to materialize.
Horse and rider continued, the currier’s gaze turning to those standing in shadowed obscurity beneath the crumbling walls. She knew all too well evil’s arrogance, having first met it when she was a child. In Baris she never failed to watch for it.
Disinterest, masked and real, looked back.
The traveler halted the mare beneath a crippled sign that once read, The Golden Well. It hung motionless, baking beneath the same morning sun fading the tavern’s facade. She dismounted, removed her goggles, and eased back her soiled hood to release unruly locks streaked with gray. Moisture clung to her neck until she lifted her hair in back.
Her shoulders relaxed and she sighed. A rag from a saddlebag removed the flatland’s grime from her face.
The stench that was Baris slithered through her sinuses. Her eyes burned. Militia charged around the stage arriving from Wilds, their derisive cries and pounding mounts scattering the downtrodden citizens. Her head ached.
A shriek sent her free hand to the hilt hidden beneath her cloak until she discovered the anguished cry was pained laughter. On the nearest corner a cackling woman in a threadbare, low-cut dress screamed again in lucrative delight. Three sloven soldiers added their lusty voices to the mix. A woman avoiding gazes hurried past the group clutching a squirming infant and leading a wide-eyed boy.
There were few ladies in ruffles and carrying parasols in Baris. Fewer yet were gentlemen seeking such women.
Nearly impossible to find was anyone you could trust.
The traveler brushed at her ragged wool skirt where it was visible below her cloak. “I shall endeavor to be as brief as possible, Doppla,” the woman whispered to her horse. She brushed a gentle hand upon the animal’s muzzle, leaned closer, and added, “Protect.”
The tavern door closed behind her on groaning hinges and severed the sun’s invasive rays. The lone, filthy window set high did little to illuminate the familiar and murky interior. Tobacco pipes, a bad flue, and the dust rising around her boots thickened the air between aging planks and beams.
To her right several carousing militia encircled a table before a cold hearth, their ale consumption a distraction that aided the woman’s desire to avoid eye contact. She instead made eye contact with the old hound resting in the corner.
On the left two dirty men in sweat-stained shirts—one his head shaved and the other brushing ale from his beard—sat across from a withered and shaking old man. Both the frail man’s bony hands clutched his mug.
Behind the bar a plump, balding man motioned with his eyes towards the narrow hallway ahead. The nauseating smoke, alcohol, and sweat urged haste, but years spent in wearying clandestine travels had taught her caution.
She slowed her pace.
At the near table the man with the smooth dome leaned forward and asked, “So, old man, where ya be from?”
“Twistaria in the Lost Hills,” came the scratchy reply that drew immediate laughter from the others.
“There be no one left in the Lost Hills ‘cept crazy wizards.”
“You be thinkin’ that ‘cause no one from here be goin’ there, but there be folks there still.”
“Then, that bein’ so, what brings ya here?”
The mournful weariness emanating from the old man slowed the woman’s pace further. “Lost everythin’…left the family an’ went huntin’ an’ when I returned it all be hard mud.”
In unison his confused hosts responded, “Huh?”
“…People, buildin’s, trees…all be clay…” The old man’s voice faded beneath the bellowing laughter mocking him.
“Ya be a crazy ole coot, that’s what ya be,” the hairier one declared. The frail man hung his head in sad resignation.
The shaved man added, “Yer tales not be worth the ale we bought ya. Not even a wizard could do such a thin’ to a whole town.”
His comrade grasped his forearm and cautioned, “No talk of wizards…a stranger…”
With a jerk the arm came free. “I say what I like,” though his voice quieted, “and she be nothin’ but a homely cow.”
The remark failed to change the woman’s even pace. Her attention, though, moved to the bar-tending proprietor and his attempts to unlock a door with clattering keys and shaking hands. Amidst a stifled yawn she noted his sweaty brow, dry lips, and anxiety-darkened eyes. When he did gain entry one match dropped into the darkness and then another before a candle was lit. Its flame revealed the wide board spanning two barrels that was his makeshift desk.
“This isn’t a good time to be in Baris,” the big man stated. He closed the door and produced a rag to wipe a brow stretching to his thin, black hair.
Much shorter than her host, she craned her neck to look up at him. His large, bulbous nose seemed all the larger for the shadow it cast. “I’m trying to locate Barrik,” she began in a calm tone after ignoring his statement, for in her opinion Baris was always an unpleasant city. “When last I saw him he stated he’d be in Baris by Summer New Season at the latest. Have I erred? Is he not here as he said he would be?”
“He was,” came the distracted reply.
Again she noted the sweat beading on his face. His large, fidgeting hands were seemingly everywhere at once. He diverted his attention to the closed door again, an action it was becoming impossible to ignore.
She resisted the urge to follow his gaze and instead maintained her calm. “Belden, what’s happened?”
“Barrik was here,” he began, but paused to wet his lips and clear his throat before continuing. “But moved on.” He fell silent, stared as if lost, and then recalled, “He, um, instructed me to tell you he regrets his not being able to meet with you…” Belden cut off his own words as if startled. “I mean, he meant for me to say this if you showed up to meet him…”
“I know, Belden.” The corners of her mouth hinted at a smile. “Please continue.”
“Um,” he again glanced at the door and wiped his brow, “I, I was to tell you circumstances forced his moving on.”
“Some trouble in Rough Water; he was vague.” The big man rubbed his chin and glanced at the door. “And then there’s the other problem…”
“Please, Belden,” she gently urged, her brief sigh hidden beneath her soft tone, “tell me what you know.” Her small hands grasped his. “It’s obvious you’re concerned for our safety so let us conduct our business quickly.” Knowing his agitated state would mask the act from him, and knowing her own patience waning, she shoved aside the risks and transferred calming strength to him to realign his balance.
Belden swallowed hard to summon his courage, but his single word then cut off the words to follow. “Practitioners…”
Her green eyes widened. “Practitioners? In Baris?” He nodded and she took a step back. “Are you certain?”
“They came upriver from the Great Lake a week ago and have been taking many to the city dungeons for questioning. No one has seen Nels since they stopped at his place two days ago.”
Already scouring her mind for answers to the unexpected twist, she chided herself for recklessly utilizing her gift, a gift she more often denied than utilized. Her disbelief at having made such a foolish mistake lingered. She stared at her trembling hands wanting to blame them alone for the act.
Practitioners, if sufficiently close, could sense magic and her act only moments before fell into that category. She lowered her hands and absently observed, “Practitioners never venture this far north. What could have possibly prompted the change, I wonder?”
“I, I don’t know.”
“The Keepers seem to have trouble coming from every direction as of late.”
“Nels said he suspected treachery…”
Her attention returned to him. “What?”
Belden shrugged, the agitation in his voice continuing to moderate. “He said nothing more except that he’d have you take a message to Becker, but now he’s gone and I’m at a loss to understand his suspicions.”
“As am I, but something is amiss. I’ve sensed it for months now. All’s been quiet in the north for years.” Her eyes moved about as if searching for answers dangling in the air. “Perhaps the unseen have not come searching for Keepers, but instead come to collect them?”
He muttered, “I’m not certain I understand?”
Emerging from her mental distractions, she looked up at the tall man, her gaze intense. “It’s best if we talk of this no more. If they’ve not yet visited here that’s a good sign. Nevertheless, it’s wise to be as cautious as you’ve obviously been.” She stepped closer and placed a calming hand on his forearm, though she refrained from any further demonstrations of her gift. “Others are awaiting my arrival elsewhere or I’d await Barrik’s return. As is usual he’s unreliable.”
The big man reached for a lighter tone, his weak smile emanating from his gratitude towards the slight woman he found inspiring. “Such is the way of wizards.”
“And except for Palladon you can have the lot,” she stated with conviction and a scowl, though little anger filled her words. Her thoughts continued clinging to the new threat touching the crossroads city and upsetting her dreary routine. “I sometimes believe we’d be better off without Wizard magic.”
“But not better off without you,” he offered, his smile spreading to his eyes.
She chuckled, a disarming smile forming. “I thank you, but you surely overstate my abilities.” Breaking eye contact, she retreated to the windowless room’s center. “I am but a currier and a messenger. Few women have the opportunity to aid the Keeper cause as I’m able to do. I’m quite privileged.”
He fell silent when she started a slow turn. “You could use a little time to do some straightening in here, Belden.”
“These days time is scarce, as is good help.”
“I imagine.” Her turn completed, she placed a hand on his arm. “Thank you, Belden.” She headed towards the door, but his words gave her pause.
“By The Powers, please be careful, Ergain Cursa. There’s an ill wind stirring.”
She looked over her shoulder at him. “And may The Powers watch over you as well. You’ve always watched out for me, Belden, and I thank you for that.” Ergain turned back to the door, but hesitated when her mind conjured white-robed practitioners waiting in the hall. The image was banished an instant later when she remembered that they possessed insufficient patience to wait.
As if testing for heat, she fought through hesitation and wrapped her fingers around the doorknob. An old, haunting memory wrapped its childhood hand over here heart and tightened its grip. She breathed deep, cursed her weakness, and opened the door.
There was emptiness in the hallway and nothing more.
Ergain raised her hood and left the storage room’s relative safety for a currier’s homeless travels, travels that included carrying illegal Keeper pouches and oral communications.
In the front the soldier’s were gone. Closer, the old man was collapsed upon the oak table in spilled ale, each breath causing ripples in the amber liquid. His two drinking companions stood atop a different table looking out the high, murky window. Ergain slowed her pace.
Curiosity and apprehension fought within her where there wasn’t enough space for both.
The bald man spoke with satisfaction born of possessing knowledge his friend lacked. “Ya be seein’ that? Burned that fella clear to nothin’ with just a fireball and now he be lecturin’ like I hear they do down south. Likely the poor bastard was one of them partials…”
“Or a Keeper.”
“All Keepers be partials, I be thinkin’.”
“Well, they all be short-one lovin’, magic usin’ traitors to the crown fer sure. No wonder the Ministry be havin’ to send practitioners north to set thin’s right.”
A silent gasp issued from Ergain. Fear burned along her nerve pathways until he limbs trembled. Her breathing quickened, for the conversation at the window was all the information necessary to reveal who was outside.
And she’d used her oft-denied gift only minutes before.
A practitioner at the back door at the moment she made her ill-advised decision to calm Belden would have sensed her gift.
Of course, Ergain was never one for heeding risks…
Still, better to remain out of sight until the Ministry’s agents were gone.
Before she could retreat the bald man glanced over his shoulder and discovered her return, his narrowed eyes cutting the room’s haze with suspicion’s blade. To retreat implied fear and fear implied guilt and she sensed the two at the window would delight in witnessing her capture, especially if a reward might be involved.
Especially if they knew she was a Keeper and a partial.
Death’s dealer was beyond the door, but was it waiting for her?
Ergain prayed her skirt, cloak, and boots were adequately hiding her violently shaking legs. Nearly she gagged on her rising fear when she tried to swallow it. Her undeclared examiner watched her cross the room from beneath his sinking brows.
At the door her hand grasped the handle. The air fled her lungs. Her knees that threatened to buckle couldn’t keep up with her racing thoughts.
They’d have had no reason to lurk in the back alley and if they suspected Belden was a Keeper they’d have blown-in the door and dragged us outside. Such is their love of melodramatics and torturous deaths.
At least, I dearly hope so…
Ergain opened the door and a burning orb filled her vision. Instinct raised a hand in futile defense against certain death.
It was the sun’s rays blinding her eyes.
In one painful inhale the air returned to her lungs.
Ergain was still reassembling her composure when a booming voice reached her ears. “This city is rife with Keeper scum, proponents of unrestricted magic. It sickens me and it’s an affront to the law of the land and Genessa.”
In the slender shade a rundown boarding house provided were several men on horseback and wearing white robes. The middle rider was preaching the Ministry’s efforts to eradicate magic.
Except that which it claimed to command in Genessa’s name.
Before them a crowd baked beneath the sweltering sun, a crowd that included those too enthralled to leave and those too terrified to risk leaving. Like his comrades, the speaker’s cowling hid his features.
Thus, the reason the Keepers often referred to practitioners as the unseen.
“There are among you those who practice magic in the belief you can do so undetected,” he continued, “but nothing could be further from the truth. Surrender yourself and the Ministry will be merciful in its cleansing. Already I have found one and there’s at least one other…”
Knowing his words were a bluff, Ergain rolled her eyes beneath her hood, though she hid her hands to mask her shaking. Unless a partial in the crowd were presently utilizing their gift the Ministry’s representatives would remain blind to the user’s heritage. Still, the charred, smoldering corpse nearby told her they’d managed to panic one person. The crowd jostled to distance themselves from the body, partly in disgust and partly fearing perceived sympathy.
With easy steps on wobbling legs Ergain descended the stairs and moved to the relative comfort Doppla’s presence provided.
“No matter,” the lecturer added in a casual tone when no one stepped forward, “you know who you are and we’ll find you soon enough.” Those in the crowd cast sharp glances at those around them.
“Gladly I’d be away from this terrible city, Doppla,” Ergain whispered to her equine companion. A casual glance determined her belongings were in order, as expected. Theft was common in Baris, more so than in most places, but few would dare tangle with her protective horse for the opportunity to examine her possessions.
“I, Senior Practitioner Conflin, serve Most Divine One Radru, who in turn serves Genessa, the mother of all things. We of the Ministry of Magic seek those who would poison this country with their magic, magic they employ for their own gain and in their worship of Lucid. Has not magic fouled this fair land with the likes of werewolves, changelings, and other demons?”
A modest percentage of the crowd concurred and Ergain sighed upon hearing the twisted truth approved. She ran a gentle and reassuring hand along Doppla’s neck and scanned the scene for Royal soldiers. None were present.
For Royal soldiers Baris was not a choice assignment. Blistering summer sun and frigid winter winds withered the heartiest. Too, the local militia was uncooperative, inept, and as corrupt as the City Council, a scheming, self-serving group created from the city’s wealthiest families. Lost souls, working class poor, and nefarious transients had constituted the city’s population since the mysquan mines closed hundreds of years before.
Conflin bellowed, “Then help us eliminate Lucid’s handiwork. The partials and wizards that operate among you must be found.” He waved his increasingly enthusiastic crowd to silence. “Some partials appear innocent, and certainly they seek to convince you they’ve your best interests at heart, but is that not the way Lucid operates? Does he not seek to gain our trust through those seeking to eliminate the non-magic majority? We must work together and remain ever vigilant against such a sinister enemy.”
While the crowd shouted its approval, and in many cases fallacious approval born of fear, Ergain held tight to the saddle beside her to center herself. Without moving her head she scanned the surrounding buildings. When her scrutiny reached the ramshackle boarding house facing the tavern an aged hand pulled away from the window. The curtain slipped back into place. Her gaze lingered, but then her attention was ripped away with a single shout.
“That one!” a man screamed, his voice erupting from the crowd. “That one there.” A serpentine poison raced through Ergain’s bloodstream and her muscles froze. “I’ve seen her use magic!”