Chapter 1 – The Hospitality of Wolves
He felt them approaching across the softened snow: a dozen separate heartbeats, stealthy paw-steps muffled by the fur between their toes, muscles tight with predatory intent. They came from all sides, and as he sat with his fingers sunk in the dirt, he caught a dim echo of their interactions through the Guardian’s senses—the flick of an ear, the whisk of a tail, a shift of rough-furred shoulders. In his mind’s eye, he could almost see the scene. Hunters and prey.
As they stepped into his territory, he smiled and reached out through the earth.
Not much grew here in the Garnet Mountain highlands, especially not in winter, but he had been urging the ground to life since he first sensed them, and now they were in his trap. He heard yelps as his grasses unfurled through the snow to snag at paws and lowered tails. The more wary ones skittered away from the green sprouts, only to tread on the gnarled roots that riddled the landscape—now repurposed as snares. Most were too slow to do more than startle his hunters, but that was enough.
Teeth snapped against old wood and new grass. In response, he drew his senses up from the dark soil to the muddied snow and ice. Harnessing water—even frozen—took less effort than moving rock or growing plants, letting him keep part of his attention on the skittering wolves as he bent it to his will. The soft snow shifted beneath one set of paws, then surged upward, locking hard around furry limbs and eliciting a whine of terror. He moved on to the next.
Easy enough. He had done this before, outside the Mist Forest and again at Akarridi, and a third time in the courtyard of the ruined manor…
Another wolf in his icy grip. Another yelp, another scrape of teeth against cold shackles. The others rounded on him, their fear of the heaving plant-life ebbing, and in response he pushed his attention into the soil again to try to snag unguarded limbs as they skulked closer.
Too late, he realized his mistake. They were fast learners; teeth sheared through grabbing grasses and paws danced aside from roiling roots, and when he switched back to ice, they continued dancing, too many and too agile to catch. And as their advancing ring tightened around him, he lost track of which footfalls belonged to which wolf—the sense of pack suddenly so strong that he saw them as one entity. A great red-mawed beast.
He grimaced and raised a circular ridge in the snow, then shoved it outward. It broke into chunks as it spread but still forced several wolves back and knocked one off its feet in surprise. The pack-sensation snapped, allowing him to sense them all again, and he took the opportunity to bind the fallen one to the ground then grab at the others.
Still not fast enough. Paws moved an instant before his ice-traps closed; bodies blurred in his tactile vision; older snares shattered as he tried to form new ones. And then the wolves were upon him, all claws and teeth.
Soil tore from his black armor in long gouges, but he had more: an inch-thick layer of it plus bark below. The impact of their furry bodies felt like being tackled by toddlers. Still, it annoyed him that he couldn’t keep up with them—not with snow, not with grass, not even with the muddy tendrils he extruded to grab at their paws when they clawed. Too reactionary, no use against their hit-and-run tactics.
Teeth scored enthusiastically at the mud and bark on his scalp, and he grabbed after the offender but caught only thin air. Another wolf clamped jaws on his antlers and yanked his head to the side, and when he reached for it, it danced away to let the opposite wolf bite for his shoulder. His retaliatory swipe hit nothing, then yet another wolf tried to chew on his neck.
He had to be missing something.
By this point in the exercise, he would have expected the former Guardians—particularly Erosei—to be haranguing him about his technique, but they had been quiet since the breaking of the bonds two days ago. He didn’t want to dwell on his last glimpse of them, staring down inscrutably at him as he hung from a broken beam, but their absence made it impossible.
They hadn’t abandoned him. But what in pike’s name were they up to?
A tooth pierced the bark layer to score his skin, and he cursed and flung the offending wolf away like a feather pillow. Concentrate, he thought. Don’t get distracted.
Another tooth punctured his shin. His return strike hit only air—then snow, then dirt as it plowed four inches into the ground—and as he wrenched his fist free, he sensed a change in the wolves. A roil in their energy, a sudden edge to their moves.
Not fear, not quite hunger. But they were pressing in again.
Shifting on his knees, he sank his thoughts into the earth. Soil and rock flowed up like liquid to replace the damaged pieces, and in the sudden swaddle of solid darkness, he felt secure. Embraced. The scratching of the wolves became dim and distant, and there were—
—cold arms around him, cold breath whispering against the back of his neck. No earth but night-black water and the heaviness in his heart, drawing him down slow and deep as all the world dissolved into—
Light. Squinting against it, he raised a hand and saw the mud dripping from his knuckles, bark falling apart beneath. His solid helm had been breached from nose to brow, releasing his senses from their self-imposed restriction.
A huge silvery wolfbeast stared down at him from above, features in shadow. Arik, he tried to say, but the faceplate still sealed his mouth shut. With a snort, he pulled it away, and a thick sheet of rock sheared from his throat and chest along with it.
“Arik. I’m fine,” he managed.
Thick brows furrowed over wolfish blue eyes, then the muzzle spasmed and crunched backward in its change, teeth shifting and fur receding to reveal the familiar rough charm of his friend’s face. After stretching his jaw, he gave a grimace of concern, still-lupine ears tucked tight against his hair.
Cob braced himself for a scolding, but all the skinchanger said was, “You scared them.”
Glancing aside, Cob found himself in a ring of naked people, so he fixed his gaze on a tree instead. It was hard to evaluate the merits of Arik’s words like that, but he had glimpsed the dirt on their faces and hands—not unexpected, considering how they had been chewing on him.
Looking down, he realized that the ground beneath him had gone from rock and snow and grass to a vast, jagged circle of freezing mud.
Did it again, he thought, his stomach a lead weight. Did it again and I didn’t even reach for it. Pikes, it’s like wetting the bed.
Then he remembered the breath on his neck, and clamped a hand there to quell the rising hairs. Once before, he had fallen into that black sea and felt that presence, too familiar, too painful to forget. He wanted to believe that it was just a mirage, but when he’d asked his father, Dernyel hadn’t answered. None of the Guardians would.
For the past five years, he’d carried the fear her death had instilled into him. In that one moment, it had been rekindled into a horrible certainty:
His mother was in the Dark.
And it’s my fault. My actions that drove her there, my betrayal—
“Cob,” said Arik, very close.
He flinched back, sliding in the mud. The skinchanger’s big hands clamped on his shoulders to steady him, and for a moment he wanted to grip them, to hang on until the knot of agony in his heart unwove.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he mumbled instead, jerking from Arik’s grip and looking away before the hurt on the skinchanger’s face could register much.
Up the hill that bordered the makeshift training yard, a small crowd had gathered to spectate. Most were wolves or wolf-folk, but four oddballs sat in a tight cluster among them: his friends. He cringed to think that they had seen it all.
Lark, at least, didn’t seem bothered. She waved Arik’s bundled-up chiton like a flag and called, “Another round! One-on-one!” She was wearing every garment she owned plus half a dozen borrowed furs, and grinning in a way he found oddly disconcerting. Maybe it was the red Corvish war-paint she used as make-up, causing her dark features to look more fearsome. Or maybe it was the gleam in her eyes and the fact that Arik was naked again.
Next to her, Fiora tried to swat down the chiton. “Stop it, can’t you see he needs a rest? For the wolves’ sake, at least.” As Lark huffily lowered the garment, Fiora turned her attention to Cob and called, “Are you all right? You look…weird.”
Cob stared up at her, then decided to take the comment in the spirit of concern. Still, he didn’t know what to say. Her expression was easier to read than Lark’s: the crinkled brows, the worried moue, the forward-leaning pose as if she was unsure if she should come down to comfort him or leave him be. With her armor off, that slight tilt was enough to show rosy-tanned curves through the loose neck of her tunic, and the way her curly dark hair fell across her collar made him want to come up and brush it back.
And then do away with the tunic, and…
Even in this low mood, he blushed. They hadn’t had any proper alone-time in more than a week, and he doubted they could steal any here. The wolves never left.
He wasn’t even sure what he felt toward her. Love? She was still basically a stranger. And he was the Guardian vessel, with a self-imposed mission that he couldn’t set aside for the luxury of intimacy. If she minded that, she hadn’t said so—and she had a mission too, for her Trifold Goddess. It dovetailed with his right now, but that didn’t mean it would forever.
If love was that fierce joy he had felt in Enkhaelen’s nightmare, that all-consuming fire fixated on his wife… Then no, he didn’t love Fiora.
He didn’t know if he could.
“Cob?” she said.
“I’m fine, I—“
“Are you done? If so, you should get out of that armor and come sit with us.”
He blinked, then nodded slowly and dug fingers into his black Guardian armor. Its teeth-scarred chunks and plates disintegrated into loose dirt as they separated from his skin. Before the manor, before the freeing of the Guardian, the armor would have fallen apart the moment he lost concentration on it. He supposed its persistence was an improvement.
The wolf-folk crowded past him as he brushed soil from his sleeves, many in furred forms but some still nakedly humanoid—with tails. He averted his eyes as they angled for the pile of leathers and furs by the cave mouth. Being surrounded by people with little regard for propriety discomfited him, but at least the humanoid ones wore loin-coverings most of the time. The women, though, only seemed to wear their vests when they were anticipating energetic tasks. He wished they would all just stay as wolves.
As usual, Arik tucked behind him as if he was a shield against the other skinchangers. Though taller and bulkier, he had spent their whole time here with shoulders hunched and eyes averted, tail tucked and ears flat, while the smaller wolf-folk stared at him fixedly with every pass.
It was some kind of wolf-hierarchy thing, Cob knew, and it annoyed him. He wished he could ask Haurah—the wolf-woman Guardian—but she was as silent as the rest of them. So instead he had made a point of staring back at the wolves every time he caught them staring at Arik, because they invariably turned away when they realized he was watching.
He hoped he was doing the right thing. For the past month and a half, he had bemoaned the Guardian’s presence in his life, but now that it had gone quiet he realized how much he’d come to rely on it for clues, for context—for grounding in his weird new reality. He was no longer the boy who had fled the Crimson Army camp, but he wasn’t ready to be free. Not yet.
After all his struggle, the admission stung, but he’d spent too much time with his fingers stuck in his ears, refusing to hear the truth. He wasn’t going to be that fool anymore.
Discarding the last handfuls of dirt, he looked up the hill again. Lark and Fiora were arguing over Arik’s chiton, which Lark was attempting to drape around Fiora’s neck like a delicate scarf. The wolf-folk kept a reasonable distance from them, but strayed closer to the others: the faint shimmer of presence that was Ilshenrir under veil, and the pile of furs that was Dasira.
From within the furs, he caught the gleam of her eyes. All else was hidden except for the tip of one boot, but from that evidence he gathered that she was sitting cross-legged, hunched forward like an old woman, and probably glaring. That had always been her default expression.
Metal glinted, then he saw her raise a slice of something toward the shadow of her hood. That was good. If she was eating, she was mending.
“Food. Right,” he said, and clapped Arik’s arm to draw him from his cower. The skinchanger tensed but did not shy away, and mustered a strained smile.
It made Cob want to punch some bully-wolves.
“But first, clothes,” he said.
Arik followed his finger to Lark and Fiora and the chiton, and wicked glee lit his face. Cob pushed him onward, and in a few strides he was upon the girls in all his glory, to a squealed chorus of horror and delight.
He ambled up just as Arik hoisted a kicking, laughing bundle of Lark over his shoulder and dashed off for the trees, the chiton unfurling from her hands like a banner. Fiora was just sitting up, red-faced and snickering, and when he offered his arm she grabbed it with a grin and let him pull her up. “Dirty trick,” she said.
“If I have t’deal with that, so does everyone else.”
Fiora rolled her eyes and stooped to pick up the furs Lark had left behind. For a moment, Cob just watched her. Not much bothered by the weather, she wore only the laced tunic that went under her padding and armor, a pair of close-cut leggings, and some soft leather slippers.
He managed to look away from the tilt of her hips, only to find Dasira eyeing him.
From the way she was still cocooned, he guessed she hadn’t been awake for long—reasonable considering it had only been two days since the stud in her right ear had exploded, nearly taking her head with it. He couldn’t see much beneath the hood but he remembered her there in the snow, immobile and barely conscious: ear gone, cheek and scalp scorched, skull shattered beneath.
That she was alive at all—let alone moving—was the work of the bracer on her left arm, its hidden tendrils pervading muscle and bone like a puppet’s strings. Her consciousness was seated there too, the rest of the body just a stolen shell.
Enkhaelen’s work. Like the ear-stud, like the manor house, like all of Cob’s recent difficulties, Dasira’s bracer had been crafted by that necromancer. She was his servant, and even though he had apparently discarded her—even though she insisted she had chosen Cob’s side—Cob didn’t know how much he could trust her.
His heart wanted to, but his heart was stupid sometimes.
He held out his hand to her anyway. She looked at it, looked up at his face, then reached from her cocoon—one hand holding a small knife, the other a hard sausage. Both hooked over his forearm, and with a mutual effort, she gained her feet.
“Thanks,” she mumbled from within the furs, then pulled them closer, masking everything.
Cob tried to smile, but it was difficult. “Yeah. Any time.”
The look she gave him was clear: I doubt that.
“Here, Cob,” said Fiora, and dropped the bundle of furs into his arms when he turned. Dusting her hands together, she surveyed their little spectating site, then bent down to retrieve her new silver sword in its makeshift sheath. “Goddess, it’s like Lark needs to wear a whole wolf-pack to go outside,” she said as she hooked it over her shoulder by the strap. “Not that I think any of those are wolf fur. That would be awkward. After meeting Sogan, I don’t know about wearing bears either.”
“Dead is dead,” mumbled Dasira from her swaddle. “Doesn’t matter.”
Fiora opened her mouth, but Cob cut in first. “Ilshenrir, you doin’ all right?”
The shimmer beside them resolved slowly into the wan form of their wraith companion. Not quite recovered from Enkhaelen’s attack, he still looked inhuman: his eyes crystalline oblongs without pupil or white, his face stiff as a porcelain mask, bite-marks flecking his cheeks. The fine filaments of his hair had regrown from where they’d been torn out, but were as dull as smoked glass and seemed brittle, like his garments.
“I am well. Do not be concerned,” he said without moving his mouth, voice seeming to echo up from a great distance. It was creepy.
“No, be concerned,” said Fiora. “He told me he spent last night in a tree because the wolves chased him off as soon as you fell asleep.”
“They what?” said Cob, abruptly furious.
Ilshenrir raised a mollifying hand. Unlike the rest of him, his grey gloves still looked real. “It is their right. I am an intruder, one they will not tolerate unless forced. Without your presence, Guardian, I considered retreat the best option.”
“In truth, four trees. They climbed the first three.”
Cob clenched his teeth to avoid a cursing spree. He’d hoped that hunting Enkhaelen down and breaking the bonds that held the Guardian would do away with some of his problems, but they seemed to be multiplying—not just the big issues but smaller ones. Quiet frustrations, secret conflicts, dark thoughts. He needed some time to breathe.
But he knew he wouldn’t get it, so he packed the anger back down into the depths. He’d deal with it later.
“I’ll talk to them,” he said. “They need to accept that you’re under my protection whether I’m awake or not.”
“And me?” said Dasira neutrally.
“What, did they bother you too?”
“No, I’m…just asking.”
He opened his mouth to say of course, but caught himself. Twice she had betrayed him, first as Darilan and then in this skin, following at his heels as she conspired with Enkhaelen in secret. She’d said it was for his sake—for his safety—and he believed her, but her idea of his best interest didn’t match up with his own.
“I can’t promise anythin’,” he told her, “so don’t make trouble.”
Dasira nodded and straightened as if taking the warning to heart. He wasn’t sure whether to be satisfied or saddened by that.
“So what was that last thing you did against the wolves?” said Fiora. She nodded toward the circle of mud. “It looked strange. Not that your Guardian tricks aren’t usually strange, but you went all black and then sort of…seeped water. We felt it from up here. It wasn’t comfortable.”
He saw the question in her eyes. Was that what almost drowned us at the manor?
Not wanting to explain, he shrugged. “Jus’ happened.” Which was true enough.
Her eyes narrowed and her full lips compressed slightly, but she shrugged in return. “As long as you know what you’re doing.”
“Well…” A strained moment, then she said, “Anyway, we think we figured out the sword.”
Cob flicked a look to the sword slung over her shoulder. Made of Muriae silver, it was the one from the manor tomb—the one that he’d lifted from Enkhaelen’s dead wife’s grip, and that had nearly undone the necromancer’s existence. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. While you were doing your wolf thing, we did some tests.” She unshouldered the sword to hold it by the top of the sheath, quillons resting against her fingers. Tilting the hilt toward herself, she said, “Obviously it does nothing to me when I touch it, sheathed or unsheathed. Didn’t do anything to you either, right?”
“And it doesn’t bother Ilshenrir.” She pointed the hilt at the wraith, who reached out to clasp the pommel with his gloved hand. “Doesn’t do anything to his magic unless he tries to cast on it. Spells won’t stick.”
“As expected,” noted the wraith. “The metal-folk are hardened against arcane influence.”
“And it doesn’t bother her either,” said Fiora, pointing the hilt at Dasira, “until it gets close to her bracer. Like this, see…”
She started to reach out with it, but Dasira hissed and stepped back, turning her left side away, and Cob stepped between them before Fiora could pursue her. “Stop,” he said. “If it’s dangerous to her…”
“Well, I asked first—“
“And I told you, never again,” snapped Dasira.
“I just want to demonstrate—“
Cob held up a quelling hand. “It’s not necessary. That thing almost took apart an ancient necromancer. I don’t wanna risk it hurtin’ anyone else.”
“But that’s my point,” said Fiora, frowning at him. “It took Enkhaelen apart but it didn’t do anything to any of us except her, and we know she’s his servant.” She tried to point around Cob with the sword but he moved into the way, so she rapped the hilt against his chest in annoyance. “I saw magic come off her bracer like it came off his arm when he was unraveling. That means—“
“We already know he made her. We’re not gonna hold that against her.”
“Would you listen already? It means whatever this sword does, it might work against Enkhaelen’s magic only.”
He blinked, then looked from the sword to the stubborn set of her face. If that was true, then… “It’s made to stop him?”
“I think so. It’s not like we’ve had much to test it against, but—“
“Can he defend against it? Ilshenrir?”
The wraith tilted his head. “Muriae are particularly hostile toward magic. If this blade is fixated upon him as its enemy, perhaps not.”
A sword of revenge, Cob thought. At the manor, he had walked within Enkhaelen’s nightmare and seen what the necromancer had done. That killing spell, refined specifically to destroy Muriae yet finding the wrong target. The spreading flames of horror and despair, the smoke that had choked all who struggled there. The fleeing child…
It was hard to piece together a full picture, and he couldn’t say which parts were real and which delusion. But he knew that Enkhaelen had shot his wife in the back by accident, and that she had died. Perhaps that had imbued the sword against him.
He almost wanted to return it to the tomb. Enkhaelen and his wife been defending each other—defending their daughter—and though he didn’t know why they’d been attacked, it still felt like a sad, tragic mess. Raising this blade against that man would be like spitting in his eye.
Enkhaelen deserved to die. But by this?
Cob shook his head, trying to cast those thoughts away. He wished he’d never seen the nightmare, never sympathized. He had enough problems already.
“Unfortunately, he knows we have it,” said Fiora. “And he’s only ever come to us in corpse bodies. We need to find his real body and kill that, but with this forewarning… Up until now, he’s been toying with us, but we’ve just made it serious.”
“We already know where he is,” said Cob, nodding vaguely north. “The Palace.”
“That’s not as helpful as you’d think.”
“It’s what we’ve got.”
She narrowed her eyes at him again and planted a fist on her hip. “It’s what the fragment told you in the nightmare, right? How do you know it was telling the truth?”
“I jus’ do,” he said, even though he didn’t. The ragged monstrosity in the little garret room had claimed to be the Ravager and spoken of its own vendetta against Enkhaelen—its desire to be free of him. But the Guardian hadn’t trusted it, so neither could he.
With no other leads, though, the Palace seemed their only option.
“Generations of my people have been swallowed up by that piking place,” said Fiora. “Priestesses, templars, sword maidens. They tried to march right in, and what did they get for it? Dead. So if that’s your plan—“
“Look, I know it’s not much yet, but we’re gonna work on it, all right? It’s not like this is any crazier than the rest of the journey.”
“Yes it is! The wraith spire, Haaraka, Akarridi—they were bad places to be, but we could still get out. No one comes back from the Palace.”
“How is it—“
“He’s there, Fiora. So we have to— I have to go get him. If you don’t want to come…”
“You’re the important one, Cob. If you want to walk into a trap, I have to be there to drag you out of it. But it would be nice if you’d, y’know, not walk into it in the first place.“
Pinned by her glare, Cob waffled between wanting to kiss her and wanting to shake her until her teeth rattled. That forceful flame was what drew him to her, but sometimes he wished she’d just cooperate.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But it might not be possible.”
Her shoulders loosened from their aggressive hitch, and she shook her head. “I’m just worried. I mean, we’re surrounded by predators. The Ravager’s people. So…”
“Speaking of being surrounded,” came Lark’s voice from downhill, “look here.”
Cob half-turned to see Lark and Arik on their way back up, Arik in his chiton though his legs were still wolfish. Lark’s garments were rumpled, but she returned a scathing glare to his inquisitive brow-raise, so he guessed it was just from bounding through the woods.
From the trees beyond came the hunting party Cob had seen leaving near the crack of dawn, long before his sparring match.
Even without knowing that mounts and riders were the same folk, it would have been strange to watch men and women ride out of the woods on huge dun-colored wolves. The beasts were bare of tack, yet the riders perched with confidence, swaying with the motion of their steeds. They wore nearly nothing, leaving the bulk of their frames covered in fur and their feet in paw-form. A few had hunting bows or boar-spears, but the rest disdained weapons.
In their wake came five hulking figures, bristle-coated and rusty red. They were thick in the chest and tightly muscled at the shoulders—not broad but dense—with short necks and wide cheeks and beady little eyes, and the way their noses sloped down to nearly mask their mouths made him think of—
Light save me, they’re draft-hog kin.
The realization nearly forced a laugh from him, but he swallowed it. They looked mean, whatever they were, and unlike the wolves, they wore armor over their copious body-hair: layers of hardened leather stitched into crude cuirasses and greaves and brow-guards. None wore a full helm, preferring to show off crests of quill-like hair, and between the war-paint and the thigh-thick clubs they carried, they were intimidating enough to back off an ogre.
Slinking along in their lee, almost unnoticed, came a single brindle-furred cat-man.
“Honored one,” called the woman-shaped wolf-rider in the lead, and it took Cob a moment to realize that she had yapped instead of spoken. The Guardian seemed to automatically translate. “We bring representatives of Gnashed Tusk tribe and Shadewalker tribe, to join in war council for your cause.”
Cob nodded slowly. Though the wolves had only offered hospitality, he wasn’t surprised that they’d take advantage of his presence. The Empire had treated them badly.
“I welcome them,” he said, figuring he should be polite, and nearly bit his tongue in surprise when growls and yips came from his mouth instead of words. Several of the man-shaped wolves huffed in amusement, and he flushed, wondering if he had misspoken. The lead wolf inclined her head, though, and the big hog-folk grunted acknowledgment.
“We find them place to camp,” the wolf said, and nudged her steed lightly, turning the whole group toward the thinner woods to the south.
Cob exhaled through his teeth as he watched them go. A few of the hog-folk dragged sledges full of rolled leather, lumpy cloth and other necessities of camp. The cat-man had nothing but a satchel and a few strings of teeth. His long tail flicked liquidly as he followed the others, unencumbered by even a stitch of clothing.
“Pike me,” murmured Lark, her tone an amazed counterpoint to his apprehension. He glanced back to find her staring after them with an odd half-smile.
“So I guess we’re havin’ a war council,” he told his friends, and saw their faces change. None looked happy. Not Ilshenrir, still wearing his scars; not Dasira, nearly broken; not Arik, with ears laid back as he watched the other skinchangers pass. Not Lark, despite her intrigue. Not even Fiora, who wanted the Empire to burn.
“But that’s not what we’re after,” she said, looking up to him for confirmation. “We know what happens to armies that assault the Palace.”
“I guess they don’t. We’ll—I’ll have to explain that. If the rest of you wanna sit it out…” He turned to Ilshenrir. “Maybe you could take Dasira and go into the Grey? I can’t say that you’ll be safe at a gathering, and I can’t leave you in a cave.”
“Or up a tree,” said Lark wryly. “Maybe we should all wait for you in the Grey. I’d love to eavesdrop on this, but it’s not really our place, is it?”
Ilshenrir nodded his acceptance, but Dasira said, “Bad idea.” Her voice was rough, unsteady, as if it took effort to piece the words together, but her eyes were pale knives beneath the hood. “You need me out here. I worked for him. I can’t give my knowledge from the Grey.”
“Nor mine,” said Ilshenrir faintly. “Skinchangers do not use magic. They will have no perspective on our enemy except as a spirit vessel.”
Cob grimaced, imagining wolves piling onto Ilshenrir in the middle of the council, or a hog-man rushing Dasira with one of those massive clubs. But they were right; he couldn’t just tuck them out of the way when they were inconvenient. If that meant getting into a fight…
Not like I haven’t done dumber things, and for less reason.
“All right, fine,” he said. “But mind your tongues, yeah? No startin’ trouble.”
“Guardian, our very existences—“
“I know, I know. Jus’… Please. Be polite.”
Ilshenrir nodded, and Cob glared at Dasira until she did too.
“If we’re staying,” said Fiora, “maybe we should figure out what not to say. Until now, the only skinchangers I’ve ever met were Arik and Sogan, and they don’t seem…typical.”
Cob looked to Arik, who took no notice. “Arik?” he tried after a moment.
The big skinchanger’s ears twitched, and his gaze slid slowly to Cob. His eyes looked washed-out, pupils wide, whole mien tight. “I…do not think I can advise,” he said. “They are not of my breed, and even if they were, I was not raised among wolves. I do not…respond correctly. You, the rest of you, they understand that you are not wolf and so are not to blame for your mistakes, but I am…aberrant in their eyes. Unwelcome.”
“I thought your spirit connected you.”
“Yes, but it is like a parent. It does not treat us all the same.”
Cob stared. He’d been aware of Arik’s edginess since their first contact with the wolves, but had shrugged it off as nerves or shyness. With his Guardian experience, he realized he should have known better. A shared spirit did not mean a hive-mind, and Arik had never behaved quite like a wolf. Evidently the other wolves took that as an insult.
“So maybe you should stay in the Grey,” he said, then sighed as the skinchanger shuddered. “All right, never mind. Jus’…maybe no one should say anythin’ directly to the council. Pikes, I don’t even know if they’ll speak Imperial, or if our plan will make them turn on us.”
“We still intend to go to Daecia City like lunatics, right?” said Lark. “Because if so, I need to get in contact with my people before we reach the Shadowless Circle. They still have that robe I won, and our travel papers. You lot dragged me out of Turo too fast to grab them.”
“The Empire’s heart. Where the Shadow Realm can’t touch. Else we could just drop an army on the Palace’s doorstep, and wouldn’t that be fine?” She snorted. “We think it’s got to do with your Light, or some Imperial magic. Anyway, is this a good time?”
“Well… Yeah, fine,” Cob said, squelching his questions. They could wait. “If we’re havin’ this meeting tonight, then we’ll probably move out tomorrow morning, so best to get all that done.”
“Does anyone have any coins? I used all mine on the last shadowpath and the eiyets won’t come for anything but sugar or shinies.”
The others shook their heads, then Dasira muttered, “I have some. And the rest of your winnings.” She fumbled awkwardly within her cocoon, then cursed as she dropped the sausage, then the knife. It stuck in the ground by her foot and she just stared at it.
“Let me help,” said Lark solicitously, gliding over to feel under the furs. Though Dasira radiated pent-up fury, she permitted it. “How’d you get my stuff?”
“You were blackout-drunk. Who else was going to do it?”
“I wasn’t that bad.”
“The only reason you didn’t puke up your liver was that Vriene healed you.”
“I wasn’t that bad!”
“Whatever you say.”
Watching them bicker, Cob felt a strange ache in his chest. There was a curve to Dasira’s lips that could almost be called a smile. He’d seen it on her face only once, but remembered it well from Darilan’s.
Stop it, he told himself. It doesn’t matter. We’re not friends anymore.
But it still hurt, and when her grey eyes slanted toward him, they were guarded. The ghostly smile vanished, her expression once again blank.
I can’t run from this. I have to face it.
“I think Ilshenrir should go with you, Lark. And Fiora too,” he said, feeling obvious. “In case the shadows give you trouble. Nobody should go anywhere alone.”
Fiora gave him a narrow look, then said, “I was planning to, anyway.” She linked her arm with Lark’s and they turned toward the cave mouth, the wraith drifting after them apprehensively.
Left behind, Arik gazed at him with sad eyes. Even if Cob had meant to send him away, that might have broken his resolve, but he’d never intended to; instead, he made scritchy fingers at the skinchanger and grinned as joy flashed over his face, followed by fur. In a moment Arik was a wolf again, capering to Cob’s side eagerly.
Settling down on the cold rock, Cob glanced sidelong to where Dasira still stood. She seemed smaller beneath the furs, gaze averted.
“So,” he said, then swallowed his next words as the massive wolf half-collapsed into his lap, quill-less belly bared for rubbing. Cob complied, and for a long moment there was nothing but the twitch of paws and loud, contented wolf-groans.
Then Dasira echoed, “So.”
He barely knew where to start. They hadn’t spoken seriously since those few moments outside the caravan-shelter, where she had approached him all but frozen and given her unconditional surrender. Her confession.
And now she’d been crippled for his sake.
“I appreciate your help,” he said, digging fingers into Arik’s thick fur. “You told me what to expect from Enkhaelen, and you did us no harm. If he traced us through you, so what? Who knows how many other ways he can do it?”
She slumped down beside him, still hidden in her furs. “I could have done more.”
“Did you know about the manor? What we were gonna find there?”
“Then it’s not your fault. You almost died tryin’ to kill him. That’s what matters to me.”
She snorted faintly. “Didn’t even get close. I’m only alive because he never actually attacked me. I just…got within his aura. And now…” The furs shifted in what might have been a shrug. “I’m useless to you.”
“Y’don’t have to fight. That’s never why I—“
“Cob,” she said harshly, “I’m barely alive. The bracer can only do so much, and this body’s brain is seriously damaged. I can think, speak, move and breathe because of the bracer, but my balance, my reflexes and coordination… They’re all shot. And I can’t fix it.”
“That’s why—“ Cob swallowed, remembering Darilan in the snow, the hilt of the broken sword sticking up from his eye-socket. “That’s why you had me stab you in the head?”
“Yes. Damage the brain and I can keep the body alive, maybe, but I can’t use it. I…” She turned away, and when she spoke again, her voice was a rasp. “I wanted to sleep. To forget and be forgotten. But Enkhaelen found me and pushed me into another body. It’s nothing I wanted; I never would have chased you again, but he said you were in danger. That he had another agent with you. And I couldn’t just…let him have his way.”
“When I attacked him, he said he’d made it up, but…” She shook her head. “He’s a habitual liar. I thought it might be Arik, since he’s a predator. Or maybe Ilshenrir. Enkhaelen could have killed him, but just scarred him a bit. Suspicious.”
In his lap, the wolf stopped wiggling, ears pricked. Cob sighed. “I don’t wanna think about that. Maybe it’s true, but to what end? That piker’s had plenty of chances to kill us, but he hasn’t done it. I don’t understand.”
“He wants to use you. For what, I don’t know.”
“And you… You’re sure you can’t repair yourself?”
“Not enough to be useful. I’m not made to mend bodies, just to steal them.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
She turned to look at him, and he saw for the first time that her pupils were unequal. The one on the damaged right side looked normal, but the left was blown wide. “It’s why I haven’t.”
Part of him wanted to say, No, wait, I was wrong. Do what you must. It might have been bigger than the part that said, You’d better not.
He almost wished he was still the boy who had fled the Crimson camp: that brick-headed idiot who felt decisively about everything. He no longer knew where the lines were, or if they’d even been real. Right and wrong, Light and Dark, wise and foolish… How was he supposed to know which was which?
“There’s nothin’ else we can do?”
Dasira sighed. “Rest, I guess. Bodies mend themselves in time, so I may become stable. But we’ve kicked the wasp’s nest. Enkhaelen, the Golds and Sapphires, the Akarridi wraiths… We can’t shelter here much longer. And you have a mission.”
“If I could stab someone with Serindas, it might help,” she added wryly. “But no such luck.”
“What d’you mean?”
“You don’t remember? I’ve stabbed you I don’t know how many times…”
His side twinged where the scar from the wraith-arrow still lingered. Her red blade had entered him there, and he remembered it throbbing like a second heart, dragging at the blood in his veins as if determined to steal his life. “It fed on me, yeah, but how does that—“
“It’s an akarriden life-drinker, forged from flesh. My bracer can connect to it and harvest the life it steals—inject it straight into myself.”
“So you can cut someone and then heal yourself with it? Does it have to kill them?”
“No, it—“ She shot a look at him. “Don’t even think about it.“
He stuck his arm out to her.
“No. Absolutely not,” she said, and tried to lurch up only to have her legs crumple beneath her. Cob spilled the wolf from his lap but couldn’t move fast enough to catch her, and she sprawled across the rock, cursing feverishly.
He tried to help, but she slapped at his hands, snarling. Her makeshift hood fell back to show the green-and-gold sash she’d wrapped around her head to cover her missing ear and ravaged cheek. “Don’t interfere!” she snapped. “It was my fault, my foolishness. Don’t you dare try to take it on yourself.”
“Jus’ let me help.”
“Not like this!”
“What else can I do? Look, as long as I have the Guardian, you can’t really hurt me.”
She stared up at him with her broken eyes and for a moment he thought she might attack, or cry, and had no idea what he’d do about either. But then a twisted little smile formed on her mouth, and she said, “You don’t know me.”
“Maybe you don’t know yourself.”
“Cob, just— This is a bad idea.”
“It’s practical. And you don’t have to actually stab me. A little cut would work, right?”
She gave him a look of pure aggravation and he knew that he had won. As she drew the red-runed black blade from its hiding place under her furs, though, apprehension banished his triumph. Beside them, Arik flattened his ears and growled low, staring at the blade as its runes kindled with hungry light.
“All right, Your Cleverness, roll up your sleeve,” she said. “Arm is less painful than hand.”
He obeyed, and she shifted closer, careful to hold the blade at a distance. Hooking her left arm in with his right, she braced his forearm and steeled her expression, and he looked away, not wanting to see the cut.
Nothing happened. After a long moment, he dared to glance back.
She was staring at his arm, fingers tight around his wrist to keep him from flinching, but had switched her grip on Serindas to point the blade away. “What’s this?” she said, tapping her thumb against a dark mark on his skin.
“It’s…dirt?” he guessed.
“It’s not dirt.” She scratched at it with her thumbnail to no effect. “Guardian residue?”
“Doesn’t leave residue.”
“Then what? It’s under your skin.”
Eyeing it, Cob tried to think of what it could be. Straight and narrow, it ran a few inches along the outer edge of his forearm like a stripe of charcoal, but—
Suddenly he remembered another akarriden blade, black-on-black, cutting toward him as he raised his arm in defense. He swallowed. “You, um, remember Erevard from camp?”
“Fendil’s lover, with the scars. What—“
“I saw him at Akarridi.”
Her eyes narrowed to steely slits. “And?”
“…And he’s one of you now. Not the bracer people,” he clarified as she opened her mouth, “a different kind. Scary teeth, looked like he’d been bleached. He had one of those black swords, almost cut my arm off but Fiora whacked it away.”
Dasira’s face clenched, then smoothed. “Glad she was there,” she said tightly. “The sword was all black? Runes too?”
“And he cut you here?” She tapped the black smudge.
“This is a problem, Cob. Black runes mean rotblade. It decomposes anything it cuts—flesh, wood, stone, metal—and you still have its trace on you. The Guardian hasn’t purged it.”
A chill ran up his spine. It had been nine days since the fight by Akarridi. If the Guardian hadn’t managed to mend it in that time… “Sometimes it itches,” he admitted.
She glared at him, then fumbled Serindas awkwardly back into its sheath and took his forearm in both hands. “No way am I stabbing you now,” she said, pressing at the line with her thumbs as if trying to split it apart. “Flesh is sealed, no scar, and it doesn’t hurt when I do this?”
“Well, now you’re diggin’ your nails in…”
“Sorry. By all rights, your arm should have fallen off days ago, but…”
“So it’s fine then,” he said with forced certainty, trying to pry himself from her grip. “Guardian’ll get rid of it eventually, nothin’ to worry about.”
“Maybe. What about Erevard? Did he say anything?”
Cob remembered the look on Erevard’s face: pure murderous hatred. He shook his head. “No, but he didn’t have to. He knew me, I knew him. He wants me dead.”
“Then he’ll be coming.” Dasira tapped the mark. “The rotblade left a piece of its essence in you. It will be able to track you. And when he arrives…”
She trailed off questioningly, watching him. He looked away. Whether she was asking if he would give her up as Fendil’s true killer or if he would kill Erevard, he didn’t know, but he couldn’t answer either. Their fates were his fault.
“We’ll jus’ have to keep an eye out,” he said.
Dasira’s mouth compressed slightly, then opened.
Before she could speak, a sound of rushing footsteps came from the cave above.
They both looked over to see Lark striding out, face clenched with misery, an orange robe slung over her shoulder and Fiora and Ilshenrir close at her heels. Cob glanced past them but saw no angry horde of eiyets, and the wolves that lounged at the cave mouth seemed indifferent. Shaking Dasira’s hands off, he rose and said, “What’s wrong?”
Lark halted a few paces away, chest heaving as she tried to gather words. Her dark eyes glimmered in the fading light, and the way her lips trembled made him want to hurt whoever had caused it. At her side, Fiora looked unusually grim.
When the Shadow girl tried and failed to speak, only managing a weak choking noise, the Trifolder supplied quietly, “Bahlaer. The Crimsons destroyed its Shadowland. Dropped some of it into the goblin caverns.”
In his memory, Cob saw domes glowing in the dark: his one glimpse into that deep place where civilized goblins like Rian dwelt untroubled by the sunlit realm. He saw the tavern and the dark-touched faces, some curious, some hostile. And he saw Lark herself, in the tunnels after the massacre in the tavern, screaming at him about her friends.
“Pikes. I’m sorry,” he said, stepping closer, and though she recoiled from his first touch on her shoulder, at the second she flung herself against him and buried her face into his chest, sobbing wretchedly.
He hugged her tight and let her cry, biting back his own emotions, and thought bloody thoughts toward the army he had fled. As of now, he regretted nothing.