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Cartomancy, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  “Leave him be, boy. You can’t help him.”

  Ciras looked toward the voice’s source. A small ivory creature crouched on a bier. He would have taken it for a child, save that its oversized head held seven eyes. Two, which were black with gold pupils, lay where expected. A third lay in its forehead. Four more, smaller and gold with black pupils, dotted its face at cheekbone and forehead, above and below the normal eyes.

  It’s a Soth Gloon, harbinger of Disaster! Ciras eased Moraven’s head to the floor, then came up on one knee to ward his master from the creature. His right hand reached down to where his sword should have been, but found nothing.

  The Gloon laughed. “I am no threat to him. Come, you are needed to help Tyressa.”

  Though Ciras remained confused, the words “need” and “help” prompted an instant response. He staggered to his feet and trudged after the ghostly creature as it leaped from bier to bier, deeper into the cavern. It slowly dawned on him that he was in some sort of tomb complex, and he did not take that omen as anything save fell.

  With each step Ciras’ attention abandoned the dying pain in his head. From the darkness he heard an odd grunting and wheezing, which was about as strange a sound he could recall.

  A thickset figure emerged into the light, dragging something heavy. A horrid stench hit Ciras. He recognized the object as Tyressa before he realized the man pulling her along was Borosan Gryst. Ciras darted forward and grabbed her ankles, holding tight despite the slimy muck coating her boots.

  “Over here. Put her up on this bier.”

  Both men carried her to a flat bier and struggled to lay her down. Her heels hung off the end of the marble slab. Despite the bat guano streaking it, there was no mistaking the pale blonde hair gathered into a thick braid. The exposed flesh on her arms and legs showed abrasions, but how serious Ciras could not tell because of the shit covering her. Those cuts, no matter how deep, were not her major problem.

  A crossbow quarrel jutted up just beneath her navel. The head had disappeared in the muck coating her tunic.

  Ciras supported himself by bracing his hands against the bier. “The bolt is rising and falling with her breath. That’s good. It’s not stuck in bone.”

  Borosan looked up at him. “What are we going to do?” The man’s mismatched eyes remained wide. “We have to do something or she’ll die.”

  “I know.” Ciras shook his head to clear it, and instantly regretted it. “I am not thinking straight yet. Keles will know. Where is he?”

  Borosan shook his head.

  The Gloon, perched on a nearby bier, pointed a slender finger back into the darkness. “They went together. He is alive. This much I see.”

  Ciras nodded toward Tyressa. “How about her? Soth Gloon can see the future. Will she live?”

  “That will depend, Ciras Dejote, on what you do.”

  Ciras closed his eyes. His entire life had been spent in training as a swordsman. His masters had insisted on his understanding the human body and its parts. He knew where and how deep arteries lay. He could thrust through organs without a second thought. He’d even been trained in ways to deal with cuts and wounds. But all of this left him far shy of being a healer.

  Part of him wanted to reject the Gloon’s statement, but he could not. He had trained as a swordsman in order to be a hero. He had grown up listening to the tales of ancient Imperial heroes, wishing he could equal their skill and daring. Many of them faced challenges that did not require mere sword work as a solution. If I reject this task, she will die, and I will never be a hero.

  He opened his eyes again and touched the quarrel lightly. He didn’t try to move it, but just felt the fletching brush between his fingers as she breathed. He slid his hand slowly down, doing his best to estimate how deeply it had penetrated. While archery had never been his focus, the quarrel’s thickness suggested a length, and that gave him hope that it had not penetrated far at all.

  Then his hand reached her belly, and he smiled. He scraped away some of the muck, then a bit more. His smile broadened, and he looked up at Borosan. “It is not as dire as we feared.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Ciras straightened up. “The Keru, like Tyressa, wear swords, but they prefer to wield a spear. Because of that they wear their swords in a scabbard, which they belt on, not in a sash as a swordsman would. The archer who shot her hit her belt buckle. The quarrel penetrated, but not very far. Probably just an inch, through her skin and the muscle beneath.”

  “So we have to yank it out?”

  Ciras nodded slowly. “The difficulty is that it’s going to hurt her a lot. If she jerks, she’ll do more damage to herself.”

  “That shall not be a concern.” A hulking form moved forward from behind Borosan. Hunched as he was, the Viruk appeared barely taller than Borosan, though his broad shoulders and muscular body made him far wider. Black hair hung to his shoulders and ran down his spine between bony plates covered by dark green flesh. His skin tone lightened from throat to groin, and along the insides of his arms. Thorns thrust up through his hair, as sharp and strong as the hooks at his elbows and the claws that capped his hands and feet. His black eyes seemed to be holes in his face, and needle-sharp teeth glittered in his mouth.

  He reached the bier and studied Tyressa for a moment. “Get water. Wash around the wound. We will cut her belt away so all we need deal with is the buckle.”

  Borosan fetched water, and they were able to wash the muck from her clothes. Following the Viruk’s directions, Ciras used a small knife to cut away Tyressa’s thick leather belt, then slice open the canvas tunic she wore. More water cleaned her skin, and very little blood trickled from beneath the buckle.

  “What now, Rekarafi?”

  The Viruk raised a finger, pressing his thumb against the uppermost pad. Moisture began to gather, hanging from the claw’s sharp end. “First we ready her. Borosan, hold her ankles. Ciras, her shoulders.”

  The two men did as they were bidden. When they were in position, the Viruk slowly scratched a line above and below the wound, then to either side of it. The woman groaned at his touch. Just inside the square, Rekarafi plunged his talon into Tyressa’s flesh and a jolt ran through her. Ciras almost lost his grip, but held on tightly. Tyressa had stiffened, but after a third puncture, her body began to relax.

  Ciras’ eyes narrowed. “You’re not using magic, are you?”

  The Viruk’s huge head turned slowly toward him. “Not in any sense you would recognize, Lirserrdin. Do you not remember how Keles Anturasi had been poisoned by my claws?”

  “Yes. He said that was very painful.”

  “You have spittle and you have tears; you have other fluids which use the same conduits to flow. Why should I be different?” Rekarafi returned his attention to Tyressa and continued to puncture her stomach. “This will numb and restrict blood flow. There, that is done. Give it a minute.”

  The swordsman raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to draw it out now?”

  “No, you are. She might yet move, and neither of you would be strong enough to hold her down.” The Viruk rose up and laid one hand over her thighs. Then he settled his other forearm against her collarbone and leaned forward. “Proceed, Ciras Dejote. As you would feel a sword going into a target, feel the bolt coming out.”

  Ciras moved opposite the Viruk, then held his hands out for Borosan to wash. He shook them dry, then closed his eyes. The Viruk’s words, delivered with just the hint of contempt, helped focus his mind. He had trained so well with a blade that he could think it through a joint, twisting and curving his cuts so they severed muscle and sinew without ever touching bone. Here he would have to do the reverse.

  Curiously enough, it did not occur to him that he might fail. He was young enough yet to have confidence in his abilities, and scant few challenges had defied him. He reached for and grasped the bolt in both hands, as if it were the hilt of a sword. He concentrated, letting the shaft move in his grip. As his hands tightened, they moved with it.
  He got a sense of how shallow the wound really was. The bolt had continued to twist after it entered, but not too much. The buckle had warped the broadhead, limiting the damage. He sensed its path of entry, felt how much play it had, and slowly began to reverse its course.

  It came—not easily or fast, but it came—sliding from the muscle and flesh. Tyressa cried out and batted a hand against the Viruk’s abdomen, but Rekarafi held her down tightly and nodded at Ciras to continue. He did, working gently, feeling the shaft come free. Then it hung up—catching on something—so he pressed down, sliding a corner of broadhead beneath the impediment. Another twist, a little tug, and he plucked it free.

  Ciras reeled back, half-faint from exhaustion, half-propelled by Borosan. The other man washed the wound, then pressed a bandage down over it while he threaded a needle. He carefully sewed the wound shut, then bandaged Tyressa’s belly. Only when he’d finished did Rekarafi lean back.

  The Gloon nodded from his perch. “She will survive. At least a little longer.”

  It took six hours for Tyressa to awaken, but in that time Borosan and Ciras had traveled deep enough into the cavern to find the narrow crack through which Keles Anturasi and Tyressa had climbed. Darkness had fallen by the time Ciras emerged on the top of a hill, but he used a small lantern to inspect the place. Though dust on the rock had not been too deep, it yielded enough tracks to let him puzzle out what had likely happened to their companion.

  Back in the cavern, washed clean of muck and changed into cleaner clothes, Ciras sat near the Viruk, with his back to a bier. “It was three men. They’d stopped and had a small fire burning. One of them shot Tyressa. There were signs of a fight, but it appears Keles lost. They also had horses. I don’t know who they are, really, but in their haste to run, they left a small pouch behind.”

  Rekarafi caught it when Ciras tossed it to him. The Viruk sniffed. “Saamgar.”

  Ciras nodded. “Moon-blossom tea. We have it on Tirat and use it when real tea is not available. The Desei live on it.”

  Borosan squatted beside him. “You think the men who took Keles are from Deseirion?”

  “It’s a logical conclusion.”

  “Then you revere logic not at all.” Rekarafi let the pouch swing slowly, trapped between two talons. “You had decided the raiders we chased through the Wastes were Desei. You have now decided that those men and the kidnappers are one and the same.”

  “You have no proof they are not.”

  “No, Lirserrdin, I do not. Nor have you any to suggest they are. However, would you think Prince Pyrust such a fool as to task raiders with both collecting thaumston and relics and capturing Keles Anturasi? Were you he, would you not give the latter task to those you knew could do it well?”

  Ciras started to argue but held his tongue. The Viruk’s words made good sense. Moreover, if Pyrust had known the details of Keles’ trip, he would have dispatched many teams to find him since the Wastes were so vast.

  “Your point is well-taken.” Ciras bowed his head respectfully. “In the morning, if you will open the cavern, I will take a horse out, find them, and bring Keles Anturasi back.”

  The Gloon laughed, rolling back on the top of a sarcophagus. The Viruk smiled, a brief glimmer coming to his eyes. “You will not be going after Keles.”

  “But it is my duty. My master and I were charged with keeping him safe. I must.”

  “But you will not. Ask Urardsa; he knows. The thread of your life and that of Keles Anturasi may again intersect, but it is not in the immediate future.” The Viruk examined his claws. “I will be going after him. I know he yet lives, and I know the direction they are traveling.”

  Ciras frowned. “How?”

  “You’ve forgotten. My claws have drunk of his blood.” Rekarafi’s hand curled into a fist. “Because I struck him in error, it is my duty to find him and save him, so I shall.”

  “And what of me?”

  The Gloon recovered himself and perched once again on the edge of the marble box. “Yours is the most perilous journey. With Borosan Gryst, you will travel north and west, deeper into Ixyll.”

  “But they are going the other way. No matter who took him, they are going back to civilization, not away from it.”

  “You will find, Ciras Dejote, that the fate of Keles Anturasi is a minor thing. The fate of the world will depend on how successful you are on your mission.” The Gloon looked away for a moment, then all of his eyes closed. “There is a chance—slender and fleeting—that you will succeed.”

  Ciras swallowed hard, hating how his mouth dried with fear. “And what is my mission?”

  “You will go into the heart of Ixyll and beyond.” The Gloon’s eyes opened and fixed on him. “You will find where Empress Cyrsa has lain sleeping for seven centuries. If you are able, you will waken her. If you are persuasive, you may even convince her to save the world she left behind.”

  Chapter Three

  10th day, Month of the Wolf, Year of the Rat

  9th Year of Imperial Prince Cyron’s Court

  163rd Year of the Komyr Dynasty

  737th year since the Cataclysm


  His horse’s rapid descent of the hill pounded Keles Anturasi into his saddle. The jolts hammered his body and started his right shoulder throbbing again. It had been two days previous that he had broken his collarbone, but it seemed like forever. Once his captors had him, they had bound his arm tight to his chest and started riding hard.

  The pain had distracted him, so he couldn’t be sure of his actual location, but it seemed deeper in Ixyll than he thought they’d gone. He smiled. My grandfather would have my hide if I admitted I was lost. Such a thing would be unthinkable.

  The Anturasi of Nalenyr were the unquestioned and unrivaled masters of cartography. Qiro, Keles’ grandfather, oversaw a workshop of cousins, nephews, nieces, and grandsons that turned out the finest charts in the world. Ships using Anturasi charts almost never ran into navigational problems, and returned from their voyages with treasures beyond imagining. Keles and his brother, Jorim, had engaged in some of the most comprehensive and difficult survey operations ever mounted, returning with information that improved those charts and filled the family’s coffers to bursting.

  Anyone but Qiro would have been happy with the family fortunes, but the patriarch desired mastery over the world. He wanted to know everything about it, and so had dispatched his grandsons on dangerous expeditions. Jorim had sailed the Stormwolf into the Eastern Sea to discover what lay there. Keles had been sent to Ixyll, to survey the land of wild magic to see if the path west had finally opened.

  Keles’ survey had been successful as far as it got. Through his mystical link with his grandfather he had been able to communicate information that expanded the maps being drawn back in Moriande, Nalenyr’s capital. Though the link hardly promoted full communication, Keles had been able to sense his grandfather’s pleasure at the information he had gleaned.

  At this point, even his grandfather’s ire would have been welcome, but Keles had not been given a chance to communicate with him. His captors—admitted agents of Prince Pyrust, the ruler of Deseirion—had pushed him hard in the ride from Ixyll. They met up with other small bands—some in Desei employ, some just scavengers in the Wastes—trading for horses and supplies. The four of them had already killed a horse apiece through hard riding, and between exhaustion and the pain of his shoulder, Keles had been unable to concentrate enough to open the link with his grandfather.

  Once they’d crossed into Dolosan, Keles had been able to orient himself. They bypassed Opaslynoti and turned southeast. Instead of riding straight east through Solaeth, which would have taken a very long time, they would head to the port of Sylumak and ship east. While the journey would be longer, ships made progress from dawn to dawn, as they did not have to stop for sleep.

  The horses trotted onto a level, arid plain. Dalen, the leader, held up a hand. The horses, well lathered, welcomed the respite. Keles did as well. S
lowly the throbbing in his shoulder grew quiet. Quiet enough that now I can feel how saddle-sore I am.

  Dalen stopped his horse and waved one of his men forward. Cort—short, squat, and swarthy—rode up beside him. Dalen pointed further ahead, to where the trail narrowed and carried past a little crest into what Keles assumed was a valley. The feature was hardly unique in Dolosan, but nothing here could be taken for granted because the land had labored beneath centuries of wild magic.

  When warriors, or anyone else, became sufficiently skilled in their vocation, it was possible they would become Mystics. Then they would become supernaturally better than lesser-trained men. Moraven Tolo, a swordsman who had been traveling on Keles’ expedition, had been a Mystic. In one fight he’d torn through a half dozen or more foes with less effort than Keles would use to sketch a street map of a one-road town.

  When any two Mystics clashed, the display of skill would be staggering—at once beautiful and terrible. It would also leave a residue of wild magic. Circles could contain it—hence the circles often worn as charms against magic, or the stone circles outside town and villages where challenges could be fought. There the wild magic would be trapped. But, left to its own devices, it could be used for good or ill.

  Over seven centuries before, Turasynd nomads from the desert wastes had gathered legions of Mystic warriors and invaded the Empire. Empress Cyrsa gathered to her the greatest soldiers and Mystic warriors in the Empire. To forestall political chicanery in her absence, she split the Empire into the Nine Principalities, then took the Imperial treasury and headed west. The nomads and her armies fought several skirmishes in Solaeth and Dolosan, but their grand battle took place in Ixyll.

  By all reports, the armies annihilated each other—and the wild magic they released nearly annihilated the world. The magic changed things in wonderful and horrible ways, and its mark could most easily be seen in Dolosan or Ixyll, where it still raged. On his survey, Keles had recorded living pools, valleys that breathed, trees bearing glass foliage, and so many other oddities that it hurt his head to think of them.