The path was a dark smear, barely visible between the trees. Widely-spaced lanterns did their best to light its way, but the fog blotted them into watery clouds of light. Willan walked as quickly as he dared, relying on the thin scatter of gravel to tell him the way. A low, dark blur crouched ahead of him at the side of the path, and his skin started tingling reflexively in the instant it took to recognize it as just a park bench. He frowned, refusing to let his steps falter.
A few strides later, the arcade of trees suddenly fell back, curving away on either side. The path beneath his feet followed suit, opening out into a glowing ringway. Water tinkled faintly from straight ahead, sounding curiously flat and dead through the mist. Patches of regularly-spaced lamp-light marked the ring’s inner edge, glinting off sturdy-looking railings. In the centre of the pool, well out of sight, an ornamental fountain babbled inane songs.
He started following the path round. Off to one side, the bright lights of the Grand Parade sliced through the fog. At its head, the Citadel was hardly even a dark patch. He could feel it as clearly as if he were touching it, though. The massive stone walls loomed heavily in his mind, calling out to him, teasing him with dreams of power and whispers of old blood. He blocked the murmurs out and focused on his immediate surroundings, on not glancing over his shoulder.
A little further round the pond, a path led off in what felt like the right direction. He turned onto it, eager to escape from the stifling grass and sullen trees. The night was softer ahead, and it brightened steadily as he approached the edge of the park. It was all he could do not break into a run.
The musty fog gave way grudgingly as he passed through the park gate and came out onto a bright, colourful alley. Shops lined the street, lights burning cheerfully despite the late hour. A lot of people were still out and about, but then the Twist was famously busy. Most seemed to be taking it easy – window-shopping, walking with friends or just milling around.
He paused in the shadow of the gate’s friendly archway, scanning the crowd carefully. Snatches of conversation danced around him as people passed:
“… well, you see, that’s what I told him, because it’s no good trying to …”
“… thick and no mistake. She’ll be abroad tonight, I tell you, could be …”
“… new place on North Square? Does the finest …”
No-one appeared to be watching or waiting. When he was fairly sure that he wasn’t going to be ambushed, he barged through the crowd and made his way down a winding side-street. A short burst of coarse laughter and inept lute-play flooded the street as a brightly-dressed couple cut into a bar ahead of him.
There were fewer shops on the alley, but well-lit homes and frequent street lanterns more than made up the difference. Brightly coloured cloths hung from many windows – long banners and pennants in a crazy mixture of reds, golds and purples. The fog seemed thinner here, a soft filter that blended the colours and lights into a haze of jumbled impressions. There had been a painting which had looked almost the same. On the wall of an elegant Marhalle coffeehouse, perhaps? Two, maybe three centuries ago? He shook the impression out of his head and concentrated on looking past the glamour. The street itself was short and gnarled, and ended in a sudden junction. Up ahead, where the alleys parted, a weathered statue beamed back at him with the kindly old face of a professional swindler.
The cobbles underfoot were comfortable, uniformly smooth and accommodating. Each one seemed to have a little glimpse of the area caught within it, a hint of market stalls or gilded balconies or shining tapestries. He paid no more attention to them than he had to the castle walls. He let the pull of his destination guide him deeper into the bright maze. The area was full of surprises that would have been charming at any other time. A graceful little shrine to Luthia hid round one corner, filling the street with the scent of wild flowers. Another street suddenly turned into a chain of quaint residential courtyards, complete with incurious, grey-bearded locals.
Eventually, a sea of blues, greys and greens led him to a flight of steps that wound down to a broad market-place. He stopped at the top, feeling exposed after the narrow streets. The square was at least a hundred yards to a side, with clusters of identical stalls wedged in amongst the statues and benches like tavern drunkards. The buildings around it housed shops, businesses and lively inns, watched benignly by a sedate guild house which dominated the far end. In the centre of the square, a wide, brightly lit stairway spiralled down into the ground, providing access to the Twist’s underground markets.
The square was busy, with a steady flow of people using the central stairwell. Many of the shops and stalls were still open for trading. Shoppers, merchants and hawkers seemed to be eddying around everywhere. It was impossible to tell if anyone was waiting for him. He sighed reluctantly, then leant back against the wall, planted his feet solidly on the ground and closed his eyes.
His skin started to tingle, and force welled up inside him, a sparkling torrent. It filled him in moments, the pressure getting greater and greater. Suddenly the energy burst out of him, flooding out into the space below. It flashed through the square, bouncing back wherever it encountered stone, casting ripples and reflections. He could already feel the rough shape of the square, its buildings and statues and cobbled pavements.
The energy reversed itself and flowed smoothly back into him, carrying a perfect imprint of the square with it. His head swam as it slammed into him, and he frowned, worried by the weakness, the lack of energy. The moment of dizziness passed, and then the square beneath him was a razor-sharp picture in his mind, outlined down to every little seam and pebble.
He studied the image for a moment, lost within its glowing golden lines. There were two statues central enough to be of use. One was of a knot of guardsmen preparing to enter the tunnels below, a tribute to the Purge. The other was a lone warrior on horseback, some age-old hero or other. He smiled grimly, and pushed his mind out towards the warrior in the square beneath him. It was like trying to walk through honey. He fought it, straining to expand his will outwards, feeling his skin prickle and squirm. There was a moment of searing pressure, and then the resistance snapped. He got a quick flash of confused impressions, and then the comforting weight of the stone warrior was all around him, heavy with the centuries that it had witnessed.
He wrapped his need up like a sparkling ball and pushed it out into the stone around him. The statue responded immediately, eager to be able to help someone. He fed impressions to it, pictures and sensations of his pursuers. He wrapped them up in the more general concept of unfamiliar observers lurking in the square, and tied it all off with a strong imperative. The stone sang back to him, an enthusiastic torrent of information. A confusing melee of faces and postures tumbled over each other in his mind. He riffled the images in his head like cards and flicked through them rapidly.
One of the thieves flashed into view, a flat-nosed boy with sandy blond hair. He focused on the lad, pushed the face back out to the statue. It responded with a fresh jumble of impressions. Identities leapt out at him, and he grabbed them as they floated past. The statue was observant, and he found that he knew exactly where they all were.
The group was six strong. His enemy wasn’t with them, so they were just part of the net that the scum had cast for him. He bit back a growl, furious that a handful of thugs should even be a consideration. They were spread around the square, watching for him, blockading the stairs down into the Twist’s underground levels.
He thanked the statue unhappily and withdrew. Weariness crashed into him as he became aware of his own body again. Keeping to the shadows as much as possible, he followed a couple of passers-by down the steps. The market was scented with the delicious tang of spices and sweetmeats. His mind immediately started conjuring up plates of food, and his stomach churned irritably. He pushed his hunger and fatigue away doggedly.
The nearest of the pack was tucked in close to an empty stall three rows away. He let the flow of people wash around him and carry him closer, until he was just a couple of stalls away. He pulled in, and stole a look at the thief. She was tall and gracefully built, with an unassuming face and average clothes. She had picked an unobtrusive corner to wait in. It was a good position, thoroughly professional. He lined the corner up with his mind map, marking the point.
There was little time for finesse. He pulled back out of sight, leant on the stall for support, then concentrated on the patch of cobbles beneath the woman’s feet. There was no resistance, not this close. Beneath their crust of jangling foam was a hard, gritty sensation in the front of his mind that meant solid stone. He grinned fiercely, and reached out to the foundation stones. They felt cool, with a hint of sparkle. He stroked them with his awareness, coaxing them into life. As they warmed and softened to his touch, he stabbed down, taking no notice of the sharp blaze of pain in his head. His skin felt like it was on fire.
The stone reacted immediately, slamming apart beneath the woman’s feet. She had time for a short, shocked yelp as she dropped into the pit, and then he released the pressure he was exerting. The flagstones flowed back together like water, swallowing the thief up completely. The hole sealed over as if it had never been. Only a small raised bump and some missing cobbles gave any hint of the woman entombed below.
He pulled his awareness back to himself. Suffocating flesh immediately swamped him. It felt as if he had turned to lead. He couldn’t even get an eyelid to twitch, he simply didn’t have the energy. He waited uneasily for the faintness to pass. The city was hacked and hewn, shaped and worked, open to the sky – the trickle of power it provided was pitiful. It took him long, dragging seconds to recover.
When he could walk, he made his way towards the centre of the square. He moved with unhurried authority, as if he owned the place. As soon as possible, he got close up behind a small group that looked to be making their way towards the market levels below ground.
Passing through the stalls was easy enough. As soon as he stepped into the open square however, unfamiliar panic started gnawing at him. The urge to turn and flee back into cover – to find another way down – almost overwhelmed him. He ignored it, ruthlessly forcing his body to keep moving slowly and calmly.
A shrill whistle rang out, followed immediately by sudden commotion all around the square. A couple of local guards outside the guild-house looked at each other indecisively, and the shoppers in front of him ground to a confused halt. He crashed through them, forcing himself into a sprint for the staircase.
A sharp tug pulled at his heel, hard. The world cart-wheeled as he tumbled, splintering into kaleidoscope images: alarmed people backing away, advancing thieves, a small rope noose around his foot. He rolled sideways urgently as soon as he could get some control over his fall.
A heavy iron mace slammed down on a spot he’d been heading for, striking suspicious violet sparks off the stones. He immediately rolled back towards the blow, getting in as close as possible. His muscles howled in protest as he jack-knifed his body up, but he whipped his hand out and grabbed the mace-wielder’s wrist. The weapon stank of hostility and adverse powers, and he was careful not to even brush it. The memory of old granite came to him easily – a rough, weathered obstinacy. He savoured it for a bare instant, then spat it out of his mind, down his arm, and through the palm of his hand into the wrist he was holding. The thief’s skin hardened. A dark stain rippled through the fool’s body in instants, leaving calm stone in its wake.
He released the statue and lurched for the stairs, ignoring the screams of the panicked crowd. Someone cursed, and footsteps gave chase. It sounded like the remaining four were still following. He made it to the staircase, and a fresh wave of hope gave him strength. He leapt down the steps. Two twisting plunges, and the dark sky was gone. A third turn, and he was entirely surrounded by invigorating stone. Energy immediately started flooding through him. His aches vanished, taking his fatigue and hunger with them. Clattering boots above him told him that the thieves were instants behind.
The stairwell around him was a solid, reassuring weight in the back of his mind. He reached out to it, felt it surrender, and then clenched down hard, forcing it to his will. The walls slammed shut barely an inch behind him, puckering up in a rocky kiss with just the smallest hole at the centre. He waited for a moment, giving the thieves a chance to find the barricade, then clenched his mind again. Another section of stairwell up near the surface constricted with a dull, tombstone thud. He shot the stone a quick apology for the rough treatment, and permitted himself a smile. The thieves were trapped, and by the confused jumble of panicked voices, they had discovered the fact.
One of them, sharper than the rest, shushed the group and then called out to him. “Willan, are you there?”
He smiled mirthlessly. “It was foolish of you to follow me below ground, into stone.”
“Mighty Power, I guarantee myself to peace eternal for you and your circle. I charge you to show mercy, in Yoren’s name.”
Clearly, the thieves had been told less than they needed. “Ah, child. The powers of the Wild are not bound by that compact.”
The thief clearly hadn’t been expecting that. “Wild? Oh, Luthia. Please. We can cut a deal. Information. Anything.” There was fear in the voice now.
Willan considered it for a moment. Memories of the last two days flooded back – pain, fear, hunger, constant pursuit – and cold anger churned inside him. “I think not.”
He reached out to the stones of the stairwell, skin prickling, and caressed them with his affection, asking for one more service. They responded readily, bulging down into the chamber he’d created, crushing the pack of thieves. A cacophony of horrible screams gave way quickly to the sharp crack of splintering bone, and worse. He ground the stones together for several moments, and then coaxed them back into their original shape. Finally he relaxed his hold on the stairwell walls, barricades and all. The flagstones scraped back into place in a cloud of red mist. Gobbets of flesh and gore coated the entire section of staircase, turning it into a stinking mess.
He turned his back on the slaughter and continued calmly down the stairs to the first level of the Twist, feeling better than he had done all day. Dim screams and the beginnings of clamour floated down from above.
Twenty minutes later, he was deep in the catacombs, far below even the seediest of the market levels. The tunnels down here looked water-hollowed, perfectly so. The stone disagreed, murmuring old dreams of bright tools and loud, aggressive machines. The memory was eons old, though. Any clear images of the old builders had long since vanished. Nothing more than teasing hints remained, as always. He sighed. This was not the time for old enigmas. He settled back against the wall to wait, closed his eyes, and concentrated on the delicious task of properly recharging his power from the rock all around him.
After a long, bright time, Willan became aware of another presence. He opened his eyes. A tall, cleanly handsome man stood in front of him, smiling pleasantly. He was an odd sight. His clothes were cut to an exotic pattern from some sheer, dark wool. A sharp vee of white under-tunic was visible from collarbones to solar plexus, and there was a red slash running down from his neck. The outfit seemed both very simple and highly complex at the same time – it was undoubtedly very expensive. The hair was short, folded over his head in an unfamiliar style. It was difficult to tell in the dim light, but his face looked smooth and tanned, accentuating the gleaming whiteness of his teeth. There was a hollowness to him, similar to the feel of an Aftershade, but without the blind, desperate hunger. He had to be the one.
The newcomer’s smile broadened at Willan’s look, and he nodded in informal greeting. “Master Willan. It is interesting to meet you. Not many powers change their affiliation. Fewer still abandon the Light. The Masters of the Dark hoped you would turn to them, I think.”
“Probably,” he said, surprised into candour. “They’re certainly damn fool enough.” He shook his head, dismissing the matter. “What do I call you?”
The man shrugged. “Whatever you want. I have no identity. I sold it ages ago.”
“You sold…” He blinked. “How?”
“Oh, it’s a long and tedious story,” said the trader. “I have no wish to bore you, and time is pressing for both of us. Shall we get down to business?”
“As you wish,” said Willan. He could feel his brow starting to furrow, and made an effort to relax. “You have brought a contract with you?”
“Normally I would, yes. You have a reputation as the meticulous type, and customer satisfaction is very important to me. This is a special instance, though. For certain reasons that I’m not prepared to go into, I cannot actually own the merchandise myself, either literally or figuratively. We’re going to have to make do without offices, contracts, beautiful assistants and all those other lovely toys on this occasion, I’m afraid.”
Willan’s head swam, and he stared at the trader. All the pain of the last two days suddenly started beating against the front of his skull. “I was assured…”
The man beamed at him. “Please, Master Willan. There is no need to be concerned. Everything is fine. We can still go ahead exactly as agreed. I just have to take some unusual steps in storing the merchandise. You won’t see any difference.”
“Explain yourself,” he said.
“Of course,” said the trader smoothly. “First of all, I want you to be confident that I’m telling you the truth. Literal honesty is one of the conditions of my existence.”
Willan nodded, slowly. “I have heard this of you. I have also heard that you are ruthless, greedy, treacherous, manipulative and utterly callous. Is that a fair summary?”
“Both fair and accurate,” the man said. “But I never cheat on an agreed deal, I am bored by the prospect of malice for its own sake, and I have nothing but contempt for boorishness.”
“Are you associated with the Dark?”
The trader laughed. “In their fantasies, perhaps. No, Master Willan. I have no ties to any circles or powers. I’m entirely independent.”
Willan shrugged. “You seem at least forthright. I cannot think of any simple question that would prove the matter of your truthfulness conclusively. I am willing to accept it.”
“Excellent. I was afraid I’d have to tell you about my last customer.” The trader grinned, teeth gleaming bright.
Willan waved the comment aside. “Tell me how you can safeguard my… ‘merchandise’ from theft without storing it.”
“Oh, it’s not all that complicated really. Given its nature, I intend to hide it within a loop of time, a lost hour that I got from a dying drunkard. You keep access to the merchandise through your own past, but no longer strictly possess it, so it cannot be stolen or coerced from you. I never have to come into direct possession of it myself. Since the man is long dead, absolutely no-one else can get anywhere near it without ripping the hour from me.”
Willan frowned. “I am uncertain as to the wisdom of this course.”
“I don’t have time to hold your hand, Master. Get in touch if you survive.” The trader started turning away.
The trader turned back around, face neutral. “You commissioned this meeting. I know your journey here has been troublesome, but you are here now. I have gone to considerable effort to find a way to meet your requirements. There are no alternatives. I’m sorry if you are unhappy with some of the implications, but this is the only solution. You may take it or leave it as you wish.”
“But placing it in some sort of limbo…”
“Master Willan, there is no way that your enemy can get hold of the merchandise, no matter what happens. Guaranteed. It will no longer be yours to lose or give away. That’s the important thing, right?”
He nodded reluctantly. “That is all that truly matters.”
“Then there really is nothing for you to worry about. I understand your concern, honestly I do. It is not necessary, however.”
“I do not suppose I have a choice,” he said. “When will you want your payment?”
The trader flashed him a dazzling smile. “Up front, of course. On the plus side, that means you get to reclaim the merchandise for free. Once the danger is past, you may reclaim it from me at your leisure with no further cost, and I will make myself available to you for that transaction when you wish it.”
“Assuming I am so able,” said Willan darkly.
“Quite,” agreed the trader blandly. “I guarantee that if you die, I will see that it goes to someone who opposes your enemy in some sense. I will never pass it to him or any of his representatives under any circumstances, and he cannot take it from me without my express consent, which he will never get.”
Willan sighed. “Very well. What would you have of me?”
“Bequeath me Castle Rising and its contents on your death, whether you subsequently reclaim your merchandise or not. That will suffice.”
“A modest request,” he said sourly.
“You will not need a home or powerful toys after you have passed on, Master Willan. It’s a small enough price for the security I’m offering you.”
“Do you want title deeds or some such?”
The trader shook his head. “No, I don’t need formalities. My deals are absolutely binding. All will be in order.”
Willan thought about it for several moments. Contents. It had a suspiciously vague sound to it. “Very well. In return for keeping my ‘merchandise’ safe, upon my death Castle Rising and all that I own within it passes to you.”
The trader arched a perfect eyebrow, and a slight flicker of frown dislodged the smile for an instant. “I’d feel more comfortable going back to the original phrasing.”
“No,” Willan said. “I will never commit to giving you that which is not mine to give. Particularly not the residents of the castle.”
The trader grinned. “It was worth a try. Do you at least guarantee not to dismantle the place, sell off choice items, or otherwise sabotage the value of the place?”
Willan shook his head wearily. “I agree that as a condition of the deal, I will not attempt to reduce the value of your bequest, or otherwise cheat you. Which reminds me. The bequest is obviously void if you are in any sense responsible for my death.”
“Please, credit me with greater taste.” The trader actually looked offended. “I’d never be so impolite as to have a client killed. Besides, I’m a patient man. There’s no hurry.”
“You may have to wait a very long time for my death.”
“Master Willan,” the trader said, smirking. “Please believe me when I say that I have all the time in the world.”
There were no options. “So be it.” Willan held his hand out. “It’s a deal.”
“It’s a deal,” echoed the trader.
The merchant clasped his hand, and shook it firmly. Willan felt a sudden wrench that seemed to reverberate through his entire body, making his teeth jangle unpleasantly. He shuddered.
The trader’s teeth gleaming. “It is done. Your merchandise is safe. In the spirit of good customer relations, I will give you a little extra information free, if you will accept it.”
“Your enemy is less than twenty minutes away now.”
Willan shrugged. “This is a good place. Strong. Better to fight here than back on the surface.”
“If you can somehow stay out of his reach for seven more days, you will not need to fight him at all.”
“Do you know this for a fact?”
The trader nodded. “Yes, it’s certain. Good luck whatever you decide, Master Willan.”
“Thank you,” Willan said thoughtfully. He looked around the cavern carefully, barely aware that the trader had already vanished. Seven days. A slim chance. Very slim, perhaps. But being in a strong place hadn’t saved him two days ago – it had barely given him the chance to flee. He stifled a frustrated growl.
In the far wall of the cavern, he could feel the presence of a passage opening. Its hollowness reverberated in his mind. He pushed at the feeling harder, and his awareness expanded out like water, into a whole network of tunnels. He traced a score of routes in an instant, and nodded to himself in satisfaction. The warren opened out onto the surface in several places. There was a way through to the river – or near by, anyway. The route burned in his mind. If he could get to the city docks, it might be possible to slip away.
It was good a plan as any. He crossed the cavern and headed into the maze at a brisk trot.
It only took Willan ten minutes to work his way up to a dank tunnel that fed into the basement of an old warehouse. The stairway up was choked with moss and old spider webs, and it smelled stale. He sighed, and his skin started tingling as he reached out to the rock underneath. It responded graciously to him, allowing him to manipulate it without protest. He climbed the steps slowly, blasting energy into the stone around him as he went. The cobwebs were almost soothing against his blazing skin. When he reached the top, he pulled the energy through, and the stairwell folded in on itself, sealing up behind him as if it had never been.
He forced himself to look around. The warehouse basement was a large, open space. Dust blanketed the floor. A broad set of wooden stairs led up to ground-level. He headed over to them and made his way up to the main floor.
The main floor of the warehouse was just as deserted. Dim patches of streetlight led him to the front, and a large wooden door. It was padlocked shut, the chains made of tempered steel. He sighed irritably, and examined the wall beside the door. It appeared to be made of large blocks of sandstone. Slipping through it would simply take too long. He went back to the wooden door, and focused his concentration inwards. He filled his mind with memories of a granite seam he knew on Mount Eldon, a proud, unyielding outcrop that hung over a icy lake.
He balled his fist and lashed out at the door. In the moment before he hit it, he channelled the memories and feelings down into his arm. He felt an instant surge of power as it hardened. His fist smashed into the wood and straight on through, irresistible. The door panel burst open with an almighty crash, one half banging against its hinges, the other hanging limply from the padlocked chain. He reached out with his mind and caressed his arm back to life, then made his way out into the night.
The warehouse was a couple of streets back from the river. The docks were close. Willan could hear them – a lazy, sprawling creature with a patchwork voice of cursing stevedores, creaking timbers and the steady groan of overloaded rope. The docks never really quieted. Like the Twist, there was always something going on. He paused for a moment and bent down to pick up a big handful of slimy pebbles, then continued towards the noise, turning the stones over and around in his hands absent-mindedly, feeling them chill as he trickled power into them.
The docks nestled inside a lazy turn in the river, forming a crescent sliver of activity in the night. Stinking wharves sprawled out into the water, gnarled with cranes, ropes and old detritus. One nearby berth was crawling with people unloading a barge that wouldn’t wait until morning. The river was wide and slow here, a natural bay of silver moonlight streaked with the golden sheen of lamps and torches. Several barges and boats were anchored out in the water, biding their time patiently.
Out across the river somewhere, Willan caught a faint sense of reassuring weight. He froze still and reached out, trying to track it across the dead water. After several minutes scanning the river meticulously, he managed to place it. The tickle was coming from a boat out in the bay. It reeked of sharp, bitter slabs – slate, probably. He hurried over to the busy dock, and went up to the first person he saw not loaded down with boxes, a dock-hand standing by the water’s edge. The man watched him warily as he approached.
Willan bullied his face into a mild smile, and pointed to the vessel carrying the slate. “Friend, I need to get to that boat.”
The dock-hand stared at him for a moment, then spat noisily into the water. “So what?”
Willan pocketed most of the stones he was playing with – garnets now, by the tang of them – and offered one of the smaller ones with a flourish. “I need to get to that boat now. I mean the captain no harm.”
The man peered closely at the garnet for a long moment and, slowly, burning greed started to replace the suspicious hostility on his face. “I think I understand now, friend. We’ll have you there in no time.” He reached out for the stone.
Willan pulled it back sharply. “Get me there first.”
The man thought about it for a moment, but the garnet was obviously hypnotizing him. He nodded sullenly. “Come on then. Quick now.” He put the documents he was holding on top of a thick mooring-post, and scurried off down the dock. Willan followed him along the water’s edge for fifty yards, and then the man swung out onto a small metal ladder and down into a dirty-looking row-boat.
Willan followed him down, and the man cast off quickly. As soon as they were clear, the fellow started sculling out into the bay, keeping his face down as much as possible. He didn’t seem inclined to talk, which suited Willan perfectly. He sat back, trying to relax, and listened to the lapping of the water.
When they were close to the river-boat, the dock-hand called out loudly. A few moments later, a rough voice shouted back a puzzled acknowledgement.
The dock-hand glanced at Willan uncertainly. “Got an important visitor for the captain,” he yelled finally. “Urgent business. Citadel business.”
Some dark curses floated back from the boat, followed by the sounds of mild commotion, and then a rope-ladder slapped grudgingly down the side. “Send him up. Any funny stuff, and we’ll stick him with so many quarrels you’ll think he turned into a pin cushion. Got it?”
Willan tossed the garnet to the dock-hand. “It would be wise to go straight home tonight, friend.”
The dock-hand muttered something, then nodded jerkily. “Got it,” he shouted.
Willan took a firm hold on the ladder and climbed onto the boat. A wide semi-circle of untidy-looking men stood on the deck. There were seven or eight of them, all armed, and several had wicked-looking crossbows trained on him. He forced a smile.
“Gentlemen, my apologies for bothering you at this hour. I need to speak to your captain at once.”
An older man with a thick mane of grey hair tied back into a pony-tail shook his head, looking disgusted. “And exactly what is it that can’t wait six hours for dawn?”
Willan turned to face him, making sure that he didn’t move enough to startle the sailors. “Are you the captain?”
“A big word for a small honour, friend. Yes, I’m in charge of these lazy slobs.”
“I need you to cast off at once and head down-river as fast as possible,” Willan said. He kept his voice carefully mild.
The captain stared at him, amazed, then started laughing. “Leam, Titul, throw this moon-blasted idiot off my boat.”
Willan reached into his pocket and pulled out the handful of garnets, holding them out towards the captain. “I will give you these garnets now.” He considered the hold full of slate for a few moments. “The same again in opals in a week’s time, when I get to my destination. But we leave now.”
The entire crew froze. After a moment, the captain gestured to a small, wiry man holding a nasty-looking knife. “Jareph.”
Jareph darted forward, and plucked out the largest stone. Willan waited patiently while the man looked it over closely, bit at it, and finally tried to score it with his knife. Jareph glanced at the rest of the stones, then tossed the one he was holding to the captain. “That handful’s worth more than we’ll take in three years, Cap.” His voice was reverential.
“Blessed Powers!” The captain was looking at the garnet as if he wasn’t sure whether it was going to kiss him or bite him. The sailors started muttering. One, taller and thinner than the rest, made small warding signs when he thought Willan wasn’t looking.
Willan smiled mirthlessly. “It would be wise if we were to get under way, captain. Immediately. Cut the anchor-rope.”
The captain took a long look at Willan’s face and at the handful of garnets he was still holding out pleasantly. “If something seems too good to be true, I was always told, chances are it is. What’s the catch, Mister…?”
“My name is Willan. I am being pursued by a very dangerous enemy. I need to get out of Keyn immediately. There is risk in helping me, I admit it. My enemy is focussed on me however, and I doubt he would molest you if you fled him. Keep me safe and hidden for seven days, and I will make all of you rich.” Jareph had started at his name, and was staring at him like he’d just grown extra heads. Willan winced.
Jareph took a step forward, and cleared his throat nervously. “Mighty Power, I charge you by the Jasmine Pact to confess your true station.”
The reply came automatically, overriding Willan’s control of his own throat. “I am Willan, power of Stone in the sixth degree in the service of the Wild.”
Everyone started babbling at once, a near-deafening cacophony.
“SILENCE!” The captain had a resigned expression on his face. “You heard the ma… the Master. You heard his offer, lads. I don’t see as I have a choice, but I can’t make this call for you. Equal shares, if you want to stay for it. If not… well, you have your pay. Keyn Dock is only a short swim, and my blessings on you.”
“Thank you, captain,” Willan said. “If all goes well, I will ensure you are all wealthy enough to last a lifetime. I will do my best to shield you from danger, or to give fair warning if I cannot do so. But we have to start now. We have already lost several minutes, and every moment increases the risk.”
Less than thirty seconds later, the boat was underway.
The captain, whose name turned out to be Fry, took Willan to the cargo hold. Several tons of slate sheets were stacked up in the room. Trap-doors above opened out onto the main deck. Willan had the captain open them up, and then went up on deck, standing near the hole.
The docks slipped past, giving way first to warehouses, then to quiet residential areas, and finally the city wall. For the first time in two days, Willan felt himself beginning to relax. He looked back the way they had come, reassured to see nothing more than moonlight on the water.
Someone up front swore a particularly vile oath. Willan looked forward, and his heart froze. A burning shape was standing dead-still on the river ahead of them, no more than a hundred yards away.
“I don’t believe it,” an awed voice said. “That’s… It’s not possible.”
Willan shuddered. Fire on water? “Get off the boat,” he shouted. “Over the stern. Swim for Keyn. Now!”
Across the deck, Captain Fry looked round at him. “What?”
“Too late. You have the stones. They will help. The boat will likely survive. Flee now, and you should live.” Willan was aware that his voice was like ice. “I’m sorry,” he added.
Captain Fry stared at him, then nodded, clearly terrified. “ABANDON SHIP, LADS,” he bellowed. He immediately took his own advice, and vaulted smoothly over the railing. There were a flurry of other splashes and some muffled curses from the water.
The burning man was walking calmly up the river towards the boat.
Willan tore down into his reserves of power ferociously, and raging torrents of energy blazed through him. His skin seemed to char in an instant, and then it crusted over, thickening and hardening into diamond scales. He laughed, intoxicated by the sheer rush of force, and slashed a handful of the energy down into the slate beneath him. The stone shone for a moment, then started flowing and melting.
An instant later, it had spun itself into thick tubes that curled their way out of the hold and onto the deck. He wove them around himself like a cage of snakes, thoughts flicking out to twist the ends into razor-sharp blades or thick, studded mace-heads. The stone ropes flowed around him constantly, following his movements. The power he was burning made him giddy.
A bright line of flame arced up to just over the boat’s bow. It hung there, contracting slowly as the boat drifted on downstream. Willan pushed a thought out, and two of the stone snakes peeled off out of the melee around him. He kept a chunk of his mind focused on shepherding them towards the end of the flame bridge, thinning them slightly into ropes, sharpening the ends. At the same time, he was splitting another snake into jagged chunks. He let the pieces fall to the ground, and then reached down with a stony tendril and grabbed one. The filament lifted the stone up and cracked like a bullwhip. The razor-sharp chunk of stone shot down the path of the flame bridge.
The blazing outline of a head and shoulders came into view over the arc of the flame bridge. Willan catapulted another chunk of slate at the figure, targeting the head. The dark stone arrowed towards the flaming shape. The slate immediately started glowing. It quickly went from black to red to white. Just before hitting its target, it disintegrated in a shower of sparks. The burning figure ignored them.
Slowly, features started to resolve as Willan’s enemy became visible inside the flame wreath. He appeared to be chuckling to himself. Willan ground his teeth together. The stone snakes were blurring around him now, moving so fast that the deck was creaking beneath them.
The man came to the end of the flame bridge. As he stepped off it onto the boat, Willan lashed out with the pair of ropes he had waiting. Twin blades of razor-sharp slate slashed up and through the flames, sinking into the man’s shoulders. At the same time, the other ends of the ropes were coiling tightly around his ankles. As the blades hit, Willan threw his arms open, forcing the stone ropes to pull tight. The man’s legs flew wide, and for a horrible instant, his body trembled as Willan’s slate ropes tried to rip him apart.
Willan felt the pressure as his enemy started to pull back against the ropes. He fought to hold them, but, incredibly, the man was too strong. He started straightening up again. Then the stone holding him flared white-hot, and swiftly evaporated away in a blaze of light and heat. When the glare died down, the man was standing upright again.
Willan shook his head in disbelief and stared at him, trying to suppress the fear that had been lurking in the back of his mind for the last two days.
“Ouch,” the man said. He looked a little put out. “My turn, I think.”
The stone snakes curling around Willan softened and then started boiling, violently. He fought to maintain control of them, looking for more resistant forms. Everything he tried was crushed back effortlessly. It was like being caught in an avalanche. He had never felt any force like it. The slate snakes evaporated away to nothing despite all the force he was consuming to keep them together. He let go, fighting a vast wave of fatigue. He suddenly felt very old.
The remains of the two ropes of slate still waited at the far end of the deck. Willan reached out to them, drawing deep on his last shreds of energy to do so. They reared up silently behind the man, who did not seem aware of them. The ropes smashed down, crushing into his skull like maces. The man staggered, and the flames around him blazed up for a moment. As they died down, Willan could see that his enemy was still standing straight, and appeared essentially unharmed. The ropes slipped out of his control, coiling down to the deck with a sullen thud. It was all Willan could do to remain standing, and despair started welling up inside him.
The man rubbed the back of his head briskly. “Surrender to me, Willan. You know what I want. I don’t need to end your life. Spare yourself.” The man started walking forwards slowly.
“Never,” Willan spat. “I’ll die first.”
Flame surged up around him for an instant, a momentary furnace blast that even penetrated the diamond crust of his skin. It left him feeling clammy all over. He staggered slightly as a blast of dizziness swept through him.
“I will have it with your blessing or without, fool. It would be wise of you to acquiesce.” The man was only a few feet away now. A small plaque around his neck started glowing with a piercing golden light. It made the flames dancing around him look sickly. “I can take it from you, dead or alive.”
The light tugged at Willan’s mind insistently, as if it was trying to pry out his soul. He grinned, suddenly bubbling with defiance. “Actually, no. You can’t.”
The light blazed brighter still. The sense of spiritual vertigo made Willan feel queasy. He forced it down, and drew the very last reserves of his energy. His mind filled with the texture of mountainsides, unyielding, unforgiving.
The man’s face contorted, anger swiftly replacing puzzlement. “What have you done? You’ll beg for the permission to explain before I’m finished, you stubborn fool.”
“I will not serve,” Willan snarled.
Heat and pain started to lick up his legs as the man poured energy into the crust of his skin. Willan lashed out, slapping the man across the face. As he did so, he spat the feel of mountains out of his mind and through the blow. A grey stain appeared on the man’s cheek. The centre of it started melting back into flesh immediately, but the edge sped out across his face.
The pain in Willan’s legs receded. He had a moment or two, no more. Calm at last, he grabbed the final wisps of his energy, and turned it inwards, tugging the abrasive texture of old boulders down into his memory. He focused his concentration in on itself, into the heart of his mind.
There was a momentary pulse of blinding pain inside his skull, and then the world tilted and faded to black. His last sensation, as the rock spread through his brain, was relief that the struggle was finally over.