The following is not the finalised edition. Chapter order and little details may change before book publication. This hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Kettna sensed the tide of magic in the chamber retreat, washing out of the room as quickly as it had broken in. The toadman, spooked by the ominous voice, blubbered apologies and ran out, leaving the iron studded door wide open. Sue Pox remained, her scowl as unpleasant as the fiendish knife she drew.
“We had a deal!” Sue searched the room, squinting in the sudden illumination, not sure where to direct her anger.
“And so it was honoured.” The voice projected from just behind Sue, morphing accent and gender to a high-born Tashiskan male. “You had your chance, my dear.”
Sue spun around, lashing out with her knife but she cut nothing but wisps of smoke. The new voice pained her. Sue’s eyes misted but her face was rage. She slashed and lunged at emptiness, stalking around Captain Malek and Kettna until the uselessness of it made her scream at the ceiling.
Malek snorted in amusement, let out a laugh then regretted it, grimacing at the pain it caused him. Sue doubled his pain with a punch to his abdomen, stealing any breath he was saving for mouthing off.
Malek’s pain satisfied Sue’s immediate rage and a glint took hold in her eyes. She strode across the room and tore open the black curtains covering the window. It was glass, but not a window looking outside. Shadows obscured everything inside the frame. There wasn’t a single feature or landmark she could identify to determine the prison location. Kettna reached out to the weave ever so carefully and sensed an enchantment about the window, the magic was foreign to her, old too. The spell binding was like a delicious but subtle spice Kettna couldn’t quite identify.
“Look, I just need more time to put the screws on.” Sue scrapped her knife down the glass, irritating the enchantment, but not breaking it. “The bitch won’t talk.”
A new voice projected in to the room, an older woman, stern and matronly. “Such problems are your creation, Sue. Leave now, or so help me, I’ll —”
The rogue pivoted and threw the knife at Kettna. The sorceress gasped as the blade lodged into the thick wood beside her head. A trickle of blood fell from Kettna’s left ear onto her shoulder.
“The next one’s between her eyes!” Sue threatened, glaring through the enchanted glass. “You hear?”
“Indeed, I do.” The woman’s voice paused, stretching the tension in the room. There was something familiar about it this time. “So we come to an impasse. You kill the inspector, I kill you. A terrible waste. Can’t we all just get along? Might a renegotiation be in order?”
Sue drew a second knife and rested it against Kettna’s jugular. “Depends.”
“If the Guildmaster can back a bounty on the no name so large. Don’t you imagine he has more tucked away? Now’s the time to even the score.”
“I’m listening.” Sue gave Kettna a sly wink, but didn’t move the blade.
“Good. Forget the no name, Sue. Whatever bounty you thought he was worth, I’ll double it. But I need you and your toughest nails onside. Rally a dozen on the quiet. Make sure they’re loyal and hungry for shine. You in?”
“Why not do it with your own crew? You don’t need me and mine?”
“Maybe I could. But when you hear tell of our haul, you and yours would be whining that they never got an invite. Your nails will raise hell trying to filch a slice for themselves. Bad blood is bad for business, Sue. Last chance. You in?”
Sue removed the knife at Kettna’s throat and dislodged the knife beside her ear, sheathing them both with a fox’s grin. “You had me at double the bounty.” Sue locked eyes with Kettna. “But if it falls through. I’m coming for blood.”
“That would be your mistake to make,” assured the voice. “Go now. I’ll attend to the Inspector shortly. Assemble you crew and meet at Gopher’s Crumble.”
Sue Pox left the room pleased, so pleased she left the door open. Maybe it was a trap, but Inspector Kettna doubted it. She had to take the chance. If only she could summon the magic required to free herself. The chains were certainly beyond her physical strength.
The sorceress closed her eyes, trying to concentrate and gather magic around her. With her mind racing, any magic she had left evaded her. Gods! She felt so weak and empty. The bloodstone sword had spoiled her with its font of power. Kettna imagined her Mother’s displeasure at that, the disapproving stare, the cuttingly accurate summary of her shortcommings and her equally succinct advice. Power without wisdom is poison. Hearing her mother say that made Kettna so angry, so ashamed of her failure to rise to expectations. Even so, she’d have given anything to hear it again.
What if her mother was dead, eaten by Uindaarg? Kettna choked back the lump in her throat, adamant such a thing was impossible, determined there was hope against the overwhelming odds. Kettna couldn’t cry for her Mother yet, but she could heed her advice. At least some of it. There was no point lamenting the poultry puddle of mana she had available. Logic and resolve would have to substitute for wisdom and fill Kettna’s shortfall as it always had before. This was her life, she’d just have to manage with what talent she had. What was it that the great philosopher, Gertrund Drich, once said?
Chains are but one link from freedom.
Master Gertrund was speaking of metaphorical chains, of course. And he was no mage, just a bard who escaped enough trouble to grow old and keep his wits, if not his women.
Wits it would have to be. A blind owl might not be a great hunter but she can still fly. Kettna stretched her fingers and stretched her mind, walking into her shallow pool of mana, feeling the weave ripple around her and savouring the blissful tingle that sped up her spine. The sorceress made the finger patterns for Hot Hand. The cantrip triggered with practiced ease and her tattoos began to glow.
“What are you doing?” Malek asked in a gruff whisper.
Kettna kept her eyes shut and blocked the captain from her thoughts, focusing only on the spell, only on controlling the small amount of magic she had at her disposal. Hot Hand was taught to be practiced across all digits, palm and preferably the wrist. Most novices didn’t care to understand the mechanics and inherent safeguards within the spells they learned. Most of them were blinded by the power, no matter how aloof they claimed to be from weaknesses inherent in a ‘normal’ life. The majority of the magical force required to manifest Hot Hand was in the wards protecting her physical flesh from damage. All the young sorceress had to do was flex the rules of the spell somewhat, reduce the wards, reduce the power. Isolating the ward on her pointer finger, Kettna then agitated elemental magic to her fingertip alone. It required immense focus compared to the cantrip, but it would work. It had to.
With a searing hot finger tip she touched a single link of the chain. At first there was no reaction, then she began to feel the heat of the metal radiating to the bare skin of her thigh. Kettna risked her mental focus to look down at her handiwork. The link glowed red, but it wasn’t enough. Kettna closed her eyes again and channelled more power, prioritising her focus to build the force in a controlled manner, even though the ecstasy of the magic tempted her to let out all the stops. The heat on her thigh built and soon she had to grit her teeth through the pain.
“Gods, woman!” Malek was shocked by her magic. “Are you insane?”
Let the bastard quiver at her magical finesse. Kettna rallied through the pain and swam in the salve of magic. A blister was a small price to pay for freedom. Her finger tip must have been white hot now, but Kettna dared not look and compromise her concentration. She firmed a mental image of her fingertip shining brighter than the sun and gloried in the precise concentration of magic.
“Enough! You’ll catch fire!”
Kettna felt her finger melting through the link now. It yielded like butter to her will. With one final push of magic, the chain broke. The sorceress carefully ended her spell so as to protect herself from the dissipating heat and shook her body free of the heavy chains.
As they clattered to the floor, Kettna opened her eyes only to see her efforts were for nothing.
A hard-faced woman wearing a black silk blouse and loose fitting trousers clapped her hands. “Marvellous! Your dear mother’d be proud.” The woman had grey in her hair, but it was thick and lustrous, falling upon shoulders used to physical labour.
“Who are you to know the Archmagus?” Kettna breathed hard, defeated by being caught out and wincing at the burn on her thigh.
“Did she never tell you about your dear Aunty? I forgot how pleasant it must be to be raised in the safety of the Isle of Solitude. A perfect haven isn’t it? Well … not so much now.”
“Agnus!” Malek spat on the floor. “Set us free or the Guildmaster will end you.”
“He’s tried and tried.” The woman laughed with mirth and spite, beaming a manic grin. “Never so lucky. Fortune blesses the brave and curses the spineless.”
“The Guildmaster won’t bargain this time,” warned Malek. “You crossed the line. What you did to him in the warehouse won’t be forgotten.”
“Good. Let him stew in his failures. Now hush, before you say something you’ll regret.”
“You’ll never get —” Malek couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so Agnus helped.
An incantation whispered through the air and Malek’s jaw clamped shut. “I said hush! It’s time for us ladies to have a natter.”
Kettna wouldn’t be toyed with. “Enough of the sham, Agnus. Show yourself for who you really are.”
Agnus shifted her form as fast as Kettna could blink. Without so much as a flourish of colour, without scintillation or sound; there stood Adept Lanuille.
“Who, me?” Lanuille’s rose lips smiled with striking beauty as tucked her ash blonde hair behind her ear.
“Or, me?” Satin skin melted away revealing the gruesome scars below. They disfigured her neck, face and scalp. The ear holding back what hair remained was folded and fused in an ugly lump. Lanuille’s once perfect lips were stretched in a mocking wry grin.
Witnessing the brutalised face that killed Rix stirred Kettna’s suppressed rage. Unchained fury plowed the sorceress into the weave, but there was not enough magic to break the leather straps still holding her down. Kettna would have launched at Agnus and tore out her smug blue eyes. Instead she nosedived into a stagnant puddle of mana, emotion overwhelming her control. The mental impact jarred so intensely the novice blanked out, semiconscious behind a veil of stars.
Stars. Of course! How could she have forgotten? Her sword was taken but that wasn’t her only hope. Kettna willed herself back from the brink of unconsciousness, her fingers frantically searching for the soft folds of the cape of constellations, desperate for a lifeline of magic to draw upon.
“Looking for something?” Lanuille pointed to the cabinet by the door and it swung open. Inside hung the star-spangled cloak and the precious bloodstone sword along with all Kettna’s other possessions. Malek’s weapons, armour and a pair of saddlebags were in there too. “I’m betting you want that fine sword. You know I’m a woman who appreciates the hunger for revenge. I respect that, but it will have to wait another day. You need me alive, Inspector. Just as I have a need of you.”
“Never!” Screamed Kettna. “You killed Rix, you cold-blooded bitch!”
“This is true. It was, of course, unnecessary. You could have lived your lives together if you’d come with me. Young hearts are selfish though.” The visage of Lanuille slipped away like a memory, shifting to that of a weathered crone. Wrinkles marked times passage on the landscape of a shrewd face with frosted blue eyes and a sharp nose. The bitter scars remained, unshaken by age. “He knew the price of betrayal.”
“Rix had no choice!”
Bloody Agnus morphed again, wrapping herself in black silk robes that seemed to gather shadows. The queen of the Calimskan underworld clucked her tongue and drew over her cowl. “Kettna, my dear, you know well enough the choices Rix made. Men with his particular charms come with particular weaknesses. He told me of your forbidden love … so very sweet, I imagine. Young love is delicate though. It rarely survives our flaws, our fears … our fragility. I know all about his indiscretions and subsequent banishment. The Order of Calim is heartless and inflexible. If anyone pushed Rix to fall, blame your parents. Isn’t that the way of jilted children?
Kettna wouldn’t bite at the hooks Agnus floated in front of her. She was no longer a child. She’d not blame her mother for this anymore. “The Guildmaster made Rix turn on you. You didn’t have to kill him. There was another way.”
Agnus shifted form again, assuming the battle hardened features of Sue Pox. “There always is. I took that brat in when no one else would. Might have let his debts drown him, but no. I gave him work. Might have let blaze burn a hole in his big ol’ brain. Might of let nectar rot his soul, but no. I got him straight see. Even found the fool bleedin’ in the gutter once. Did I leave him die? No. I brought him back before Nathis grabbed his hand. I gave Rix another way every time, bar one. He’d have been dead long before you came lookin’ if it weren’t for me. You should be thanking old Aunty.”
“Say what you want to help you sleep at night, but I’m not convinced. You’re no saviour.”
“True.” The illusion of Sue Pox slumped ever so slightly, eyes cast down beneath the dark cowl. “I’m neither saviour nor saint. But tonight, you could be. You couldn’t have saved Rix. No one could. His debts came due. But you could save Calimska, Inspector.”
“There’s no way I’d help you. Not if the gods whispered in my ever maddening mind. Not if all the hells boiled over.”
Sue pox’s face washed away beneath the cowl morphing into the supple-skinned Lanuille. “I thought you might say that. You have a certain determination that reminds me of your mother … in all the wrong ways.”
“What do you care if Calimska falls to an evil dragon? You’d fit right in.”
“I’ve done more to keep the people of Calimska safe than you can imagine. The evils I’ve kept out of this city. Sure, I break the law sometimes. So do the snobb-nosed upper-crusters. You know for certain that the highest office in the land is corrupt as hell. Demons deeds! The Guildmaster created Blaze! Trading with the Jandans on the sly. His gods thrice-damned son Uighara is a poacher for Calim’s sake. So don’t turn me down because I’m a criminal. At least I’m an honest criminal. At least I give a damn about the poor nameless bastards cast down and trod on by every other guild.”
Kettna couldn’t deny the hypocrisy of it all. Bloody Agnus might have a point, or she could just as easily be lying. There was no telling how many evil things she had done to maintain her grip on the underworld of Calimska. Agnus was the craftiest manipulator Kettna had ever come across. How could she ever know what was truth and what was a lie?
“I’m not swayed by sentimental tales of your Cauldron Code. You’re not the underdog, Agnus. You don’t protect people, you prey upon them as much as any gold-greedy guilder.”
Agnus shifted her persona to the elder woman in the black dress. “If I can’t convince you with words, then perhaps the Captain here will persuade you?” The criminal sorceress sashayed around Malek and released him from the spell keeping him silent. She tested the leather straps holding him down then caressed up his thigh and abdomen. She racked her nails across his chest, grinning at his stoic refusal to flinch.
“Do your worst, Agnus.” Malek flexed his powerful body, straining against the leather straps. “You’ve lost your edge. That spoiled brat doesn’t have a care for me.”
“What? After all that time by her bedside keeping her safe from me? Not once? Not even a tickle?” This illusion of Agnus was Kettna’s senior by a good many suns, but she explored Malek’s body with shameless pleasure. “Her loss. She doesn’t know you as well as I do.”
“Enough of your stupid games. You know these bonds won’t hold me. I’ll be leaving soon.”
“Oh, I think you’ll want to stay a while.” Agnus ran her long fingers across Malek’s jawline then scratched her nails down his bare chest, drawing blood. “I don’t intend on harming you, Malek. After all, how could I? You heal as fast as the moon rises. What’d the point be? I’m not a sadist. I’m a pragmatist. Now, the both of you must pay attention. I have two very specific reasons why you’re going to work with me to bring down the Guildmaster.”
Magic swelled around Agnus and tendrils of red and black spiralled from her outstretched hands to the darkened window. The window frame lit up with arcane sigils and the glass rippled like rain upon a pond. When the ripples settled the glass clarified, revealing a similar sized room on the other side. A tall man and a shorter woman were strapped in similar positions to Kettna and Malek. It was too dim for Kettna to see exactly who they might be. She didn’t have to. Who else could it be but Elrin and Minni? Their silhouettes faced the magic window and they stirred, straining against their bonds but all was painfully quiet. Bloody Agnus projected her magic through the window and released the prisoners from their curse of silence.
“Yaranoo kahl, vaganoo kahl!” Wailed the woman, her feline language accented with throaty growls. “Mal’ek’Ollenth!”
“Ket!” cried the man. It was a voice the inspector would know anywhere. It had to be her father. His voice was weak and worried. “Elements eternal, are you safe? What has she done to you? My darling girl, I —”
“Father!” Tears clouded Kettna’s eyes. After all she’d been through, she desperately wanted it to be her father, yet prayed that it wasn’t. If he, one of the most accomplished sorcerers in the land, was captured by Agnus, what hope did Kettna have to escape?
With a whisper of arcane power, Bloody Agnus silenced them again. “I hope you both appreciate what’s at stake.”
“You’re a monster!” growled Malek, his arms bulging so much the buckle and strap on his upper arm burst open.
“An ironic accusation if ever I heard one. One day you’ll both thank me. After all, I rescued your loved one’s from the chaos out there. Lend your dear Aunty a hand and I’ll guarantee their safety.”