Chapter One: Snake Attack

 

THE LAST time Lucky had gone to Nedhra City with Thurlock, they’d been on foot. This time, they took horses. Lucky had considered summoning K’ormahk, but a winged horse seemed like overkill for a trip to town. Besides, K’ormahk was basically wild and self-determined—he did what he wanted. Lucky knew he would answer if he was needed, just like he’d done on the day of the Battle of Hoenholm. Calling him at a time when an ordinary horse would be sufficient felt like taking advantage of the great stallion’s generosity—and anyway Thurlock wouldn’t have been able to keep up—even on Sherah.

Fortunately, Lucky had become a much better rider after spending time at Morrow’s stables the previous year. They’d been on the road for half a morning already, and he hadn’t once come close to falling off or even looking silly. He sat his mount—a spirited dapple-gray mare named Zefrehl, descended from Lucky’s old friend Windy—with grace. He was even comfortable enough that when Thurlock struck up a conversation as they rode, he could give it most of his attention.

“We might as well get some things said, Luccan,” Thurlock said. “We’ve got time now and who knows when we will again. If you like, we can start with questions you may have.”

Instead of the heavily traveled East-West Way, Thurlock had chosen an older, secondary track as their road to the city. Its route cut straight through obstacles the main road avoided—went over hills and through the forest instead of around them. When Thurlock prompted him to ask questions, they were in the middle of a stand of young pines with rather stiff, sharp needles and sticky, though pleasantly aromatic, sap. Ducking under some low branches and going around a fallen tree provided a good excuse for Lucky to take a moment deciding what to ask. As often happened when it was the wizard he was speaking to, what came out of his mouth surprised him. “You know when we were doing Shahna’s Cup?”

“Surely that’s not the question you want to ask.”

“You sounded cheerful.”

“Yes.”

Lucky suspected Thurlock was being deliberately obtuse. “But it’s a parting cup. We were saying goodbye, and you talked about going into battle.”

“Every day, we all go into battle one way or another. When those battles for which we are preparing seem likely to be significant, we sometimes take Shahna’s Cup. It’s for luck, you might say. And the battles we all move toward today could be significant—momentous even.”

Lucky heaved a sigh. “You’re missing the point and you’re doing it on purpose.”

“Am I? What is the point?”

Instead of answering, Lucky asked, “Does going into battle always make you cheerful?” He refrained from adding, “you stubborn old fart,” and he was glad Thurlock couldn’t hear his thoughts.

“No, Luccan. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. But doing something rather than waiting for things to be done to us certainly improves my mood.”

They didn’t converse much after that—or rather Thurlock rambled quite a bit but Lucky stopped listening, instead drinking in the quiet countryside along the way, and reflecting on how appearances can deceive. At about half an hour before sundown, they found a small glade on one bank of a fair-sized stream where water bubbled crystal clear over rocks into a tiny waterfall. The day cooled as night clouds began to weave themselves across the sky, but there was enough dry wood scattered nearby for a nice fire. They’d brought bread and cheese and sausages from the Hold’s kitchens, and they ate that cold, but afterward, Thurlock produced a bag of Jet-Puffed marshmallows, and they roasted them over the coals with long sticks.

When the stars were humming overhead and crickets, frogs, and a couple of owls had come out to sing along, Thurlock asked Lucky to fetch some water in his little teapot and set it on a rock near the fire pit.

“Why don’t you just do your tea by magic in the morning, like you do coffee for Han?”

“If you recall, I told you once before: we only do things by magic, instead of the ordinary way, when we have a very good reason.”

“I forgot you said that,” Lucky said. “Probably because you just seem to do things whenever you want.”

“Well, when you’re as old as me, maybe ‘because I want to’ is sometimes a very good reason. Another consideration, though, tea just isn’t the same if you don’t make it the long way. Besides,” he added, tilting his head indignantly, “do you really mind doing this one little thing for me?”

Lucky’s mouth dropped open, and shame heated his face. How ungrateful he must seem! “I’m sorry, Thurlock. No, seriously, I don’t mind at all.” By the time he finished speaking he was already halfway to the creek with the little kettle.

Thurlock smiled when he brought it back and set it in place. “Thank you, young man.”

They laid out their saddle blankets beneath their bed rolls to keep the moisture down, and sat for a while under their cloaks, watching the fire cool. And that’s when Lucky decided it was time to ask another question.

“How far are we from the city?”

“Only about forty miles. We’ll be there tomorrow.”

Lucky snorted, which was slightly embarrassing because he hadn’t done it on purpose. “Thurlock, that would mean we traveled seventy miles today. Mostly at a walk. Horses can’t go that fast.”

“This route is a little shorter. And no, not on their own, they can’t.”

“Oh! So you did some magic? I didn’t notice.”

“You’ve been in a bit of a trance, I’m afraid, which is why you remember everything I said about the Charismata even though you thought you weren’t listening.”

Lucky started to say that he remembered no such thing, but the protest sort of strangled itself when he realized that yes, indeed he did remember what Thurlock had said about the Suth Chiell’s power called the Charismata. He breathed out roughly, for some reason quite disappointed in himself for not being able to ignore Thurlock when he wanted to.

“Never mind for tonight, Luccan. We’ll find time tomorrow to review the concepts, and perhaps you can practice a little. For now, sleep well, young man.”

Thurlock’s last words had sounded like some sort of benediction, and they fell over Lucky like a soft snowfall of peace and safety. He fell asleep, not expecting to dream at all.

 

 

THE STARS winked out as Lucky floated down into a desolate landscape. He came to rest on top of a broad plateau with a lake like a giant pothole in the middle of it. He walked to the edge of the cliff to see what he’d find below. He saw, as he had before in his dreams, black mist-shadows and crackling flashes of blue light. But Ciarrah rested in her sheath, the Key of Behliseth against his heart, and all around him shone a shield of light—Thurlock’s blessing, he thought.

He knew this dream was not like the others. He’d not been taken into it; he’d dropped in unannounced, of his own accord. He’d come to spy, and as yet he remained undiscovered.

He saw a dim figure in the distance, and thought first of his mother’s shade, but the voice he heard rumbled low-pitched with words he couldn’t make out. He saw pillars of mist grow up from the ground, and elsewhere puddles and pools of it so black and numerous that from above, in the dim unholy glow, the land looked pockmarked, its disease spreading like leprosy.

Then he realized that though the landscape may look ruined and foreign to him, it was, indeed, land. It was a place in the real world, and if only he could remember the landmarks, he’d know where the battle he was being warned of would be waged. Because that’s what this was, a warning. Preparation for a battle unlike any that had ever been fought.

Before he could begin to catalog the features of the land, though, a painfully brilliant blue light shone directly into his eyes, blinding him. It hurt as it stabbed into his brain, and he may have cried out—he wasn’t sure. Ciarrah answered that light with her own violet beam, shining forth from the emblem on her hilt. And the Key made its noise so high and piercing that whatever foul curse someone was trying to lay on him, its syllables were shattered before they could bring the magic into being.

Lucky fought panic down, closed his eyes against the cold blue glare, and commanded himself back to the glade where he slept near the fire.

Where the horses waited in the night.

Where fireflies flitted in the grasses mirroring the glitter of stars above.

Where Thurlock, the greatest wizard, had covered the ground with wards and hung the sky with a curtain of safety.

 

 

MORNING CAME cool and damp by the stream, but the music of the flowing water was sweet, and the day promised to be fine. Thurlock sat on his bedroll and, listing to one side, flicked a lazy magical hand at the fire to light it. He clearly hadn’t been awake for long.

“Good morning, Thurlock,” Lucky said very softly because he felt like loud words might shatter something.

Thurlock grunted and rolled onto his knees. He looked as though he was preparing to stand, though it might take some time. Lucky shot up and rushed over to offer him a hand. Thurlock accepted the help, which surprised Lucky once he thought about it.

“Thank you, young man,” Thurlock said. “Some days I do feel like I’m getting old, and this is one of them. I suppose it’s to be expected. I’ve not truly rested for days.”

“Didn’t you sleep last night, sir?”

“With one eye open, Luccan. With one eye open. Give me a few moments to wake up and drink some tea, and we’ll talk about your dreams.”

“My dreams?” Did Thurlock know?

“And some other things. How are the horses?”

Lucky recognized a dismissal when he heard one, so despite his discomfort with the idea that Thurlock had somehow known what had gone on in his head during the night, and despite his anxiety over what “other things” might be on the agenda for conversation, he left the wizard alone and went to tend the horses.

Lucky had always liked horses, though he’d been clumsy with them at first. After his stay on Stable Master Morrow’s magical lands, he’d gained confidence and come to understand the equine species a lot better, and now he thought they liked him, too. Even the noble Sherah nuzzled him in greeting. He’d rubbed them down pretty good the night before, and they’d had access to fresh grazing and water where they were picketed, so there wasn’t a lot they needed. He looked them over, checked their hooves the way he’d been taught, and then gave them a light brushing to wake them up. He left them happily munching oats and went back to see about his and Thurlock’s breakfast.

He didn’t actually have to see to it, though. He came back to the camp to find his plate keeping warm on one of the rocks lining the fire pit, already loaded with bacon, slices of hearty bread, and a roasted apple. He smiled, and then smiled wider when he watched the water in his cup transform to hot cocoa. “Thanks, Thurlock,” he said, but he was wondering how the old man would take it if he asked for mocha from now on. He had recently developed a taste for coffee with his chocolate in the morning.

Lucky was still eating when Thurlock put his plate aside, refreshed his tea, and sat back, settling his gaze on Lucky. Which felt a little creepy and made Lucky wonder if he had a chocolate mustache or something. Of course, that wouldn’t be what was on Thurlock’s mind. More likely he was about to treat Lucky to a serious wizardly conversation.

“You already know I can’t enter your mind like Han can, Luccan, but I set a spell—for your safety of course—to catch your dreams, and this morning it was quivering like a spider’s web when a giant fly lands in it. It’s a marvelous little spell, really, one I worked up when Han was young and his grief for his family was fresh. It catches the worst of the things that enter through our dreams and prevents them from getting deep into the mind.”

Flabbergasted that Thurlock had this remedy at hand and hadn’t used it to save him from his mother’s awful shade, Lucky blurted, “Why didn’t you use it to get me out when my mom had me trapped in the dark?”

“Oh,” Thurlock said. “I wish I could have, but it doesn’t work after the fact. Only if it’s set up ahead of time. But let me tell you more about it. It siphons off some of the more troubling aspects of the dream that are internal, coming from inside a person, and if one examines the web of the spell, they can see hints of the dream’s material. In this case, I saw mists and colors, magenta and that lovely electric blue we’ve both come to associate with evil. The colors of darkness.”

“But you didn’t wake me?”

“I started to, but I saw your face, and you weren’t afraid, or hurt, or sick—not at all the way you looked during those other dreams—the undreams, as you called them. Instead you looked alert, interested, and maybe a little sneaky. Do you remember what you saw, this time?”

“Yes,” Lucky said, noticing with surprise that it was true.

“Want to tell me?”

Lucky told him about his spying venture and in conclusion insisted, “Thurlock, I know the place I saw is real. It wasn’t like where my mother took me when she had me… my mind… captive. I don’t know the location, but it’s part of the real world. This world. The Terrathians are planning something big—bigger than the Battle of Hoenholm. I’m sure of it, and that place I saw is where at least part of it’s going to happen.”

Thurlock spent a few minutes torturing his beard and sipping his tea, making a rude noise once when he shifted on his rock, followed by a muttered “oops.” Finally he looked once again at Lucky and said, “Could be just a dream, Luccan.”

Lucky wasn’t fooled. “You don’t believe that.”

“No. But it could be. Do you remember the features of this place you saw? Landmarks and such?”

“I… think so. Maybe.”

“Could you draw a picture of it?”

Lucky laughed out loud. “Thurlock, I can’t draw a stick figure so’s anybody’d recognize it as human.”

“Oh yes, I recall your runes were pretty sloppy. We’ll have to work on that—runes are important. But as to this other, perhaps, would you recognize the place if you saw a picture of it?”

“Um… probably?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Probably, sir.”

“All right, then. That could be useful. Saddle up. We’ve got to get moving. Wait, though.” He picked up a pile of metal bits from a rock next to him and held it out to Lucky. “Put this on.”

When Lucky shook it out, he discovered it was a hooded shirt made out of disks of sun-metal linked together—leaf mail, he supposed, like what Han made him wear the day of the battle. “I’ll bake,” he said, letting it show that he also thought it was ridiculous. They weren’t being shot at, for the gods’ sakes.

“Would you rather wear full, stiff armor like Gimli the Dwarf?”

“How did you know I read Lord of the Rings?”

“I know you read it twice.”

“Three times.”

“I know lots of things. Answer the question.”

“No.”

“Put it on, then.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

This was not the sort of argument Lucky was likely to cave in to, generally speaking. But when the person saying it was an obscenely powerful wizard who was currently causing sparks of irritation to stream from his magical staff…. Well, Lucky put the mail shirt on.

“Can I leave the hood down?”

“Of course you can—for now. I’m not unreasonable.”

The sight of Thurlock’s cheesy smile triggered Lucky’s sense of humor, and he laughed again while gathering up the last of their things and packing them for the ride. The fire was of Thurlock’s magical variety, and now he extinguished it completely with a wave, and then with another gesture abolished the pit and every trace of their visit. They mounted up and started their horses walking through the trees to the summer-pale grass on the side of the road. Thurlock stopped, so Lucky did too. The wizard seemed to be searching for something, looking up and down the roadway, but Lucky had a sense he was searching with more than his eyes. When he met Lucky’s gaze, he seemed troubled but, disregarding a grunted “hm,” didn’t say anything.

He led the way onto the hard-packed dirt of the centuries-old track and then urged Sherah to a low trot. Lucky brought Zef alongside and kept pace, wondering occasionally why Thurlock seemed quiet and preoccupied. Mostly, though, he tried but failed to ignore the annoying jingle and weight of the mail shirt.

Lucky’s stomach growled and prompted him to wonder if it was lunchtime yet. He looked to the sky, the blue of which was broken only by the white-hot daystar and two tiny puffs of cloud that seemed to taunt him with the idea of shade. Judging from the position of the sun, he pinpointed the exact time of day as “somewhere around the middle of the morning.” They were passing what seemed to be a horse ranch, or a stead as they would perhaps call it in the Sunlands, and the roadway cut straight through the wide fields, not even passing near the windbreaks that made the only shade in sight.

“Hot!” he said, speaking rather loudly, as he had to talk over the noise of the mail shirt.

Thurlock reached a hand out and muttered a word, and though the day stayed hot, the mail suddenly became air-conditioned. Lucky was about to say thanks when Sherah, most dependable of horses, snorted in a way that almost sounded like a growl and stopped dead in her tracks.

Once again Thurlock put a hand out and this time said, “Stop!” And then, quieter, “Don’t move anything.”

Either Lucky obeyed or some magic stopped him, but once he was at a standstill, he made sure not to move beyond the barest of breath. The horses didn’t so much as twitch an ear or shake a fly off their hides, and Thurlock sat like stone.

Maybe twenty-five feet up the road, a snake came out of the grass at high speed and whipped its body sideways, skimming over the hard-packed dirt of the track straight toward them. When it got close it stiffened, raised its head, and sounded the rattle at the end of its tail. Before Lucky could so much as blink, it lifted its head as high as it could reach and lunged for him, fangs exposed. Thurlock’s staff was somehow there to catch it. When it made contact with the wood, bright light flashed through the reptile’s desert-camo body. The snake wrapped once around the staff and hung there, still and lifeless.

Lucky, in shock, said, “I almost peed, Thurlock.”

Thurlock didn’t respond to that, but after a few seconds during which he peered intently at the dead snake, he said, “We don’t have many snakes in the Sunlands, Luccan, and even fewer in this particular area. Interestingly, unlike Earth, all throughout Ethra the reptilian population tends toward dragons, drakes, and wyverns. I’ve had plenty of time over the last millennium to study such things, you see, and particularly during the slow times, I’ve looked into—”

Not recovered enough to think before speaking, Lucky said, “The point, Thurlock. What’s the point?”

Rather than turning Lucky into something slimy as comeuppance for his impertinence, Thurlock looked surprised, and then said, “Oh, yes. Of course. I’m rambling again. Try to avoid telling Han, if you would. He always—”

“Thurlock, please.”

“I’m sorry, young man. Yes. My point is, I do not recognize this animal. I’m pretty sure it is foreign to this entire world.”

“Oh!” Lucky said. “Well, I recognize it! That’s a sidewinder—they have them in California. They don’t usually get quite that big, though,” he added, because the snake was a good eight feet long. “In case you’re wondering, yeah, they’re venomous. How do you think it got here?”

“That’s a valid question, Luccan. Not only do I wonder how it got here to Ethra, to the Sunlands, but how did it get here to this particular spot at this particular time?” He was still holding the snake at the end of his extended staff, and the horses still didn’t like it, shuffling their feet and snorting unhappily, so Thurlock said, “Calm down, Sherah. It will be over in a minute. Luccan, I want you to do something, but don’t start until you understand all of what I’m asking. I want you to call up the Sight. As you know, I don’t have it, and through it you can give me some useful information. I want you to use the Sight to look at the snake, and also at the area at the side of the road from which it emerged. But,” he said pointedly, “when we use magic, it makes a sort of noisy splash that others with certain abilities can hear. I want you to do this quietly. Do you understand what I mean?”

Ready to say no, he didn’t understand it at all, he instead looked inside, to the place above his eyes where the Sight seemed to come from. He remembered how, at first, the magical vision would just come over him, taking in everything, overwhelming him with things he didn’t want to see. Since then, he’d learned to turn it on or off, and that was better. He realized, though, that whenever he’d turned it on before, he hadn’t been specific about what he wanted it to show him. Considering that, he decided he could make it smaller if he tried, more finely focused.

Surprised but mostly sure, he turned slightly in his saddle to meet Thurlock’s gaze. “Yes,” he said. “I think I do.”

Good, my boy. Go ahead, then, and tell me what you See.”

“Well,” he said, “I See your magic all over the snake, but not much else. I think if anything was there, what you did wiped it away.”

“And the place it came at us from?”

“At me, you mean….” Lucky let the thought go and gasped at what he saw hidden in the grasses and in the air above them. “Gods, Thurlock! There’s like… a hole? A Portal, maybe, but not like the ones I’ve seen before. The mist-shadows have been there, but now it’s only traces left—like what was left in the old ruins once you dismantled what Mahros had done there. And….” Lucky went silent.

“Stay calm, now, and go on. Describe the and, please.”

“For a moment, I thought I Saw a soldier, one of the wraiths like the ones we fought in the battle, with the sword and all. He was sort of hanging in the air, right there. I can’t be sure it was ever really there, because all I See is a shadow, or no, a memory… not sure what I mean by that.” He gazed quietly at the space for a few more breaths, then sighed. “But whatever was there before, it’s gone now.”

“Good,” Thurlock said, then repeated, “Good. Let go of the Sight now. Let’s get away from here and we’ll have a rest.” He nodded toward the snake hanging off the staff and immediately it appeared in the palm of his other hand, miniaturized and turned to stone, its eye a tiny, gleaming blue jewel. “Magic takes energy and we’ve both used more than we expected so far today. We’ll replenish and have a talk.”

“About?”

“The Charismata, of course.”

“Oh, that again.”

“Not again. Just ‘that.’ Be accurate when you whine, Luccan.”