The young peasant woman Kamala has proven strong and determined enough to claim the most powerful Magister sorcery for herself-but now the Magisters hunt her for killing one of their own. Her only hope of survival lies in the northern Protectorates, where spells are warped by a curse called the Wrath that even the Magisters fear. Originally intended to protect the lands of men from creatures known only as souleaters, the Wrath appears to be weakening-and the threat of this ancient enemy is once more falling across the land.
Which could mean only one thing.
“She’s coming,” he whispered.
Favias turned and nodded sharply to his people. No more explanation was needed. Dismounting, the Guardians took up their bows and nocked blue-tipped arrows in readiness. The other members of the party followed their lead and dismounted also, looking about nervously for cover as they did so. The Guardians did not bother with that. They understood that physical barriers were meaningless at this point. Either they could draw the Souleater down to them, within range of their weapons, or they were all dead men.
A growing heat suffused Colivar’s flesh as he watched them make their preparations. Strange instincts warred within him. He wanted to run. He wanted to meld himself into the shadows, so he could not be seen. He wanted to stand atop the tallest pile of bones, spread out his arms, and welcome the ikati queen. Was all that the result of her power playing upon his mind, or was memory playing tricks with his soul?
Careful, Colivar, careful. This is the real test now, by which your own kind will know you. Ramirus seemed unaffected, he noted. Outside of the man’s responsibility to protect Gwynofar, he had little emotional investment in this scene, and could watch the battle with impunity, shielded by his sorcery, until it became necessary to conjure a portal and flee. Or so he no doubt thought. But who was to say that any sorcery would work properly in a queen’s presence? Unlike male ikati, she had the ability to direct her mesmeric power against her own species, and that had especially dark implications for the Magisters. Should Colivar warn Ramirus? He couldn’t think clearly enough to decide.
“There!” a voice cried out suddenly. One of the Guardians was pointing upwards.
It was no more than a black spot against the sun at this point, but a hot thrill ran up Colivar’s spine as he caught sight of it. Several of the guards looked up briefly, then shrugged and looked away. That was her power, convincing them that what they had seen was of no consequence. The fact that she could influence their minds from such a distance was truly daunting; Colivar had not known that such a thing was possible. Or perhaps he had just forgotten that it was possible,
He could feel her mesmerism lapping at his brain now, but he knew all the tricks of seeing past it. Staring at the open sky to one side of her, he let his peripheral awareness gather information for him. The more you focused directly on a queen, the more power she had over you. He remembered that now. He was remembering so much now. The illusions he had woven about his life were beginning to give way as she approached, like slivers of fine vellum curling away from a flame. False memories, adopted over time to protect him from the real ones, falling to ash all about him. He felt strangely naked, stripped of that self-deception. And for perhaps the first time in centuries, a flicker of genuine fear took root in his soul.
As the distant black shape moved away from the sun, allowing men to stare directly at it, Colivar could pick out the people whose resistance was strongest. Gwynofar, of course. She stood gazing at the sky in rapt attention, her eyes never wavering from her target. So the legends about the lyr were true. Salvator was by her side, and he, too, watched the queen as she flew in circles high, high above them. What was that ancient creature to him? Some kind of terrible demon? An emissary from his destroyer-god, sent to earth to punish mankind for his many iniquities? Beast or demon, it was clear from the way Salvator gripped his weapon that he was ready and willing to do combat with it.
But the queen did not come down toward them. She remained circling high above, frustratingly out of range of their weapons. A simple ikati would not have known to do that. It would have wanted a closer look, and closed some of that distance. Which mean that this creature was something more than mere ikati.
She is from the northern colony, Colivar thought. He had known that all along, of course — there was no other possible explanation for her presence here — but a thrill ran through his flesh nonetheless, to have it finally confirmed. As for what that meant to him —
“What is the issue with sorcery?” Ramirus’ voice carried just enough power to guarantee that the morati would not hear him. “Your warning about the Souleater skeleton. What was that about?”
Colivar hesitated. He knew just how much an honest answer would reveal. Too much. Yet the need was undeniable. And they were allies now, weren’t they? At least when it came to these creatures.
If you knew where my knowledge came from, Ramirus, this battle would be the least of your concerns.
Finally he said, “If you connect to a Souleater directly, you may die. I’m not sure about that. It’s never been tested. But the risk is there.”
A white eyebrow arched delicately upwards. “And you think this…why?”
Colivar did not answer. He could feel Ramirus’ power lapping at the edges of his brain, trying to pry loose some shard of useful information, but it was only a token effort; they both knew his mental shields were too strong to be breached so casually.
Then one of the Guardians lifted up his hands, as if to channel a cry toward the heavens. He was going to try the same trick that Rhys had used, outside Danton’s castle, to draw the Souletaer to him. That will not help you with a female, Colivar thought darkly. But he held his tongue as the man let loose the sharp, piercing cry. Yet another thing he could not admit to knowing.
This time, he could feel the cry resound in his flesh. This time, it was meant for him.
High overhead, the ikati queen did not so much as pause in her wingstroke, but her power began to lap down over the party. Two of the horses began to pull back against their reins, and Colivar saw that the warrior who reached out to steady them stumbled slightly as he did so. One of the archers man put out his hand to a nearby boulder to steady himself, as the strength in his legs began to fail him. Salvator’s witch seemed about to perform some kind of spell when he lost his concentration, swayed, and then went down heavily on one knee. Colivar saw Ramirus glance over at Salvator, who seemed startled by his witch’s fall; clearly whatever strategy the High King had prepared for that day depended upon witchery. The High King moved over to where the man knelt and helped him to his feet, refusing to meet the Magisters’ eyes as he did so. Even in the face of death, he would accept no help from one of their kind. Colivar was both amazed and appalled. Did he think that stubbornness alone would save him? His ease of motion suggested that he was indeed immune to the creature’s power, but what difference would that make if could not bring the Souleater within range of their weapons?
You damned fool, Salvator! You will die here along with all your people, in the name of that idiotic faith of yours. Who will benefit from that, other than our enemy?