Read the Prologue and First Chapter From R.A. Salvatore’s Song of the Risen God

War has come to Fireach Speur.

The once forgotten Xoconai empire has declared war upon the humans west of the mountains, and their first target are the people of Loch Beag. Lead by the peerless general, Tzatzini, all that stands in the way of the God Emperor’s grasp of power is Aoelyn, Talmadge, and their few remaining allies.

But not all hope is lost. Far away from Fireach Speuer, an ancient tomb is uncovered by Brother Thaddeus of the Abellican Church. Within it is the power to stop the onslaught of coming empire and, possibly, reshape the very world itself.

Song of the Risen God is the climatic conclusion to the thrilling Coven Trilogy from author R. A. Salvatore. Available January 28th from Tor Books.

 

 

Prologue

The dust of ages greeted Brother Thaddius Roncourt of the Abellican Church when he and his companion at last pried open the stone slab set into the side of the hill. Thaddius tilted his head back, to more fully take in the stale air, and closed his eyes, basking in hope.

Sister Elysant, meanwhile, grunted and pressed harder against her stave, using it as a lever to force the slab—no, not a slab, but an actual door hung on curved metal hooks—open wider. The door was angled, so its weight pressed back against the solid staff.

“Help, if you please, O lazy one,” she said through her clenched jaw.

Brother Thaddius didn’t reach for the door but instead lifted his hand, holding a large malachite. He fell into the song, attacking the weight of the door with the gem’s countering magic.

Elysant stepped forward when she felt the press lessen, and the door swung fully open to fall against the side of the hill.

“Look at these,” she marveled, feeling the curved hinges. “Fifth century?”

“Sixth, and beyond,” Thaddius replied. They had both seen these types of door hangings at St.-Mere-Abelle, of course, for the old monastery had been fashioned bit by bit across the ages, featuring the architectural designs that spanned the nearly nine hundred years of its existence.

“And nothing we would expect to see out here in the Wilderlands,” Elysant added.

Brother Thaddius nodded and stared into the dark hole now opened before him. Was this really a gateway to another time? Was this really a crypt of Abellican brothers? Of saints, even, including one of the greatest Abellicans who had ever lived? He found that he could barely draw breath, and not for the stale air.

For months, Thaddius and Elysant had scoured the foothills of the Belt-and-Buckle Mountains, far to the southwest of the city of Ursal, following the rumors and myths of the people settled about this region known as the Southern Wilderlands. It had been a frustrating, often infuriating journey of discovery, for the ways of these uncivilized folk were quite offensive and foreign to Thaddius. Like the two monks, they were Bearmen, including many who had deserted the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, seeking the freedom and potential riches of these lands untamed, and many more who had been born in this region, descendants of previous emigrants from Thaddius’s homeland.

Even though the wilderfolk, as Thaddius had come to call them, mostly professed themselves Abellicans, few had treated Thaddius and Elysant with any hospitality. Rather, the monks from Honce-the-Bear had been seen with great suspicion. Whispers followed their every step when they ventured through a village, and many, particularly the children, ducked into shadows when they noted the pair passing.

“Do you feel it?” Thaddius asked, and in looking at his companion, he knew that Elysant didn’t have to ask him to clarify.

“The door has not been closed for centuries,” she noted. “The growth covering it is not as old as that.”

“How long, do you think?”

She moved closer and studied the roots, including some that had been chopped apart at one points. “Decades?” she asked as much as stated, with a noncommittal shrug.

“Twenty-five years?” asked Thaddius.

Again, Elysant shrugged.

“As the old man told us,” said Thaddius, referring to the aged villager who had directed Thaddius and Elysant to this nondescript hill hidden in the forest on the very edge of civilization.

“We know nothing yet,” she reminded.

Brother Thaddius nodded and fished from his pouch another gem, this one a diamond. He spent only a moment finding the song of the magical stone, then brought forth a rich glow and held it aloft as he might a torch. He took a step for the opening, but Elysant cut in front of him, presenting her staff before her into the darkness with one hand, half turning to put her other hand on Thaddius’s chest, holding him back.

“You do your job, I’ll do mine,” she said.

Thaddius chuckled, amused by her feigned seriousness. “If we are right, it is a place for dead things,” he reminded.

“And if there are other ways in, a place for snakes, perhaps? Scorpions?”

Thaddius answered by calling for more magic from the diamond in his hand, the gemstone’s glow increasing greatly.

The tunnel went in a short way, through natural stone and dirt, with roots crisscrossing here and there. The floor was of set stones, however, smooth and mostly flat. It bent around to the right, to another door, also of stone, but open. Elysant used her staff to push it wide, revealing a descending stair beyond.

Down they went, their view blocked by a low ceiling that matched the angle of the stairway until they came to a landing and another set of stairs, turning sharply right. This time, the angled ceiling only followed them for a dozen stairs before opening into a chamber of worked stones, roughly square. Elysant crouched low and whispered for more light, the tone of her voice telling Thaddius to hurry. He moved down beside her as he increased the magical diamond light again, and he and Elysant gasped together at the sight revealed.

On the bottom of the stairs lay a body, a skeleton, mostly, in the ragged clothes and hides of the wilderfolk. Another body lay crumpled in the far left corner of the small room, broken and twisted, but neither of the monks gave it more than a passing glance.

For this was indeed a crypt, an old one. A stone sarcophagus was at the center of each wall, all but the one on the opposing wall open. A fifth sarcophagus, the largest of them all, sat in the middle of the room, its lid secured by large stones piled atop it.

“What?” Elysant asked, looking to her companion.

Thaddius could only shake his head and answer with uncertainty. “The robbers, I presume. The superstitions of the wilderfolk run deep.”

They went in slowly, Elysant carefully leading the way over the body at the base of the stairs. She moved to the coffin on the wall to her immediate left. Its stone lid was askew enough so that she could see old remains within, a broken skeleton in tattered Abellican robes.

“Closer with the light,” she bade, and she bent low to an inscription on the lid and blew hard, lifting the dust from the lettering. She pulled the sleeve of her robe over her hand and briskly rubbed it, then recited the poem inscribed:

Alas for Master Percy Fenne,

Who killed the goblins plenty,

With tiger’s hands he felled a score

And piled their bodies twenty.

Alas for Master Percy Fenne,

Whose efforts should have won,

Excepting that his foes this day

Numbered twenty-one.

Elysant couldn’t help but laugh. “Even in death, they were heroes,” she said.

“Because they believed, and so they did not despair,” Brother Thaddius added, and he, too, gave a chuckle at the poem, so wittily macabre and amusing all at once.

Thaddius stood back and turned, and Elysant did, too, and took a step toward that central, most impressive stone sarcophagus. She stopped, though, and motioned to the back wall, where rested the smallest box of all—and one, it seemed, that had not yet been violated.

“By Saint Abelle,” she whispered.

“The old man was right,” said Thaddius.

* * *

Like a black maw, it stared back at them, open and uninviting.

But here they meant to go.

“Give ’em time, what-ho,” whispered a large man as he reached out and grabbed a friend striding ahead, bow in hand, arrow nocked.

The others of the gang bristled.

“Let ’em do our work for us, eh?” said the large man.

“The skinny one and the little girl?” a sturdy woman asked skeptically from behind.

“Y’ain’t doin’ it with a hammer, no matter how hard ye’re hittin’ it,” said the oldest of the group, a middle-aged man, the son of the oldest man in the Wilderlands village, who had heard these tales for all of his life.

“Aye, let ’em do our work, then ye take down the skinny one fast,” the large man told his archer friend.

“As you believed,” Sister Elysant whispered when Thaddius had finished his magical work on the small box. Thaddius held his diamond high once more but lowered the intensity of the glow—he wasn’t quite sure why that might matter, but it seemed, somehow, more respectful. He stayed back as Elysant carefully slid the now-separated lid from the opened coffer. And it was a coffer, she knew now, and not a funerary, for this one had not been put here to hold a body, as with the other, larger four.

Deceptively strong for such a compact woman, Elysant managed to ease the lid quietly to the floor. She looked over her shoulder at Thaddius for direction, for he had stepped back again and stood unmoving.

“Thaddius?” she asked.

He didn’t answer. He could not bring himself to step forward and look in. He recounted the steps that had brought him to this place and this moment—if it was, after all, that which he believed and that which he fervently desired.

“So it was true,” Elysant said, barely able to get the words past her shivering lips, and it was not cold in here. The short woman gingerly went up on her tiptoes, peering into the open stone box, but only for a brief moment before turning away. She was feeling the same way as he, Thaddius understood.

“The pagans are good for something, at least,” Brother Thaddius said, trying to lighten the tension.

“Pagans?” Elysant asked skeptically.

“You wouldn’t consider them Abellicans,” Thaddius replied. “Have you witnessed their prayers and offerings? More Samhaist than Abellican—or worse, some blending of the two, which is a greater offense than simply being a Samhaist!”

“Because Abellicanism is so pure?” Elysant asked, flashing a wry grin and letting her quarterstaff twirl slowly in one hand, an unsubtle reminder that she had been trained as a warrior by Pagonel, a Jhesta tu mystic from faraway Behren.

“That is not the same thing,” Brother Thaddius argued, but he shook his head and let it go, knowing he could not win the argument here. For a decade, Sister Elysant had been his mental foil, always challenging him and many times (too often for his liking) tying him into logical corners from which he could not escape. It amused Thaddius now to consider that Elysant, three years his junior, not even yet thirty years of age, had become to him his most important teacher.

He hoped that she felt the same of him.

“They believe what they have to believe to get them through the trials of this difficult land,” Elysant replied. “And through life itself, for death is ever staring at them, hungry. Was our own faith so ensconced just a few years ago? Was yours?”

“We stand before a great treasure and argue politics,” Thaddius replied with a nervous laugh.

“We stand before secrets of the early and great Abellican monks, so we hope,” Elysant reminded. “These are treasures only because of politics, and faith.”

Brother Thaddius stepped farther back from the open coffer and stared hard at the woman, though his thoughts were judging himself and surely not her. He considered her point more carefully, particularly given his own internal strife during the convulsion of the great civil war that had ravaged the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear a decade before. Brother Thaddius had been a part of the defense of the greatest monastery in the world, the abbey of St.-Mere-Abelle, under the command of Father Abbot Fio Bou’raiy, an Abellican following the tenets of newly sainted Brother Avelyn Desbris. Avelyn’s teachings were of compassion and tolerance—even to the point of spreading the beauty of the magical Ring Stones.

Opposing them were the forces of the demon spawn, King Aydrian Boudabras, who led his mighty army to assault St.-Mere-Abelle, the last stronghold opposing his iron rule. That army had included more than a few Abellican monks, led by the fierce and powerful Master De’Unnero.

De’Unnero.

Simply recalling the name brought a wince to the face of Brother Thaddius Roncourt. Marcalo De’Unnero had believed in the old ways, ways of judgment and punishment, of hoarding the Ring Stones within the Church alone and letting the misery of the world serve as a proper reminder to the peasant rabble that their only salvation lay in complete obedience and devotion to the Abellican Church. Father Abbot Bou’raiy’s hug of compassion would be met with the slash of De’Unnero’s arm, a limb transformed into the killing paw of a tiger.

Both men had died in that battle, one that had included a dragon from the deserts of Behr, and thousands more had perished beside them, but Bou’raiy’s side had prevailed. St.-Mere-Abelle had won, with King Aydrian defeated and exiled and gentle Braumin Herde, a friend and disciple of St. Avelyn, elevated to the position of father abbot of the Abellican Church.

The side of goodness and community had won, Brother Thaddius now understood. But he knew, too, as did this woman beside him who had become his closest friend and confidant, that he had begun his inner journey to his current philosophy as a secret follower of Marcalo De’Unnero.

“Hold your judgment of these people about us, Brother,” Elysant said, as if reading his mind—which was not likely hard to do at that time, Thaddius realized. “Your consternation weighs on you more than on them. They only know what they know, as we only know what we know.”

“And now we are here,” Thaddius said lightly and grinned, a proper smile, given the priceless relics now apparently sitting right before them. He hesitantly moved back to the edge of the open casket, the only one of five in this vault that had survived the vandalism and looting of the previous uninvited visitors. The markings on this coffer—the only markings, for it had no inscription like the one previous ones—showed that grave robbers had tried to break it open but had failed, as the old villager had recounted. He had told the couple that he had heard tales that one of the coffers would not yield to the determined hammering of the thieves. This one casket among the five, an unmarked and otherwise unremarkable stone coffer, fit that description, and showed exactly those marks.

The other four, Thaddius believed, had held the possessions and bodies of Abellican monks of long ago. All that likely remained now was the scrambled bones and rotted cloth that had survived the looting, as they had seen in the first of the graves. But this one remaining, previously unopened box was no funerary. Those who had buried the others in here had taken special care with this one—or more likely, it had been one of the monks here entombed who had done so, shortly before his death. For this treasure had been magically sealed and could not be forcibly revealed, the stone strengthened and made into one piece by the magical power of the orange citrine stone, and so it could not be opened, not by hammer or mace or brute strength.

Brother Thaddius, however, possessed what the previous intruders had not. He had Ring Stones. He had magic. And he used that magic, first the powerful sunstone to dispel many of the guards and enchantments placed upon this box, and then a polished piece of citrine, the stone of earth, not to break the stone open but to gently separate the top slab from the rest of the coffer.

“Are you going to look?” Elysant said after a long pause.

Thaddius took a deep breath.

“I know,” the woman agreed, and then she stepped forward suddenly and faced her fears of disappointment, and stared into the open box. She slapped her hand over her mouth and began to giggle nervously.

“What is it?”

“Come see,” Elysant told him. “Oh, come see!”

“Is it?”

The woman never turned from the stone box, and she began waving excitedly. She gasped again and giggled more loudly when Thaddius approached, diamond held high, showing the true beauty of the sight before her.

For there in the stone box sat three alabaster coffers, decorated in gold, intricately carved with evergreens and other symbols of the Abellican Church, standing on legs that also seemed made of gold. These alone were a treasure, of course, but that only hinted at something even more precious within them.

“These were no ordinary brothers,” Thaddius whispered reverently. “This is no simple tomb for lost monks.”

“Aye, that’s what we’ve been thinkin’ for most o’ me life,” came a voice from back by the entrance, and the two monks spun about to see a host of ruffians, weapons drawn, entering the room.

The speaker clued Brother Thaddius in to the truth of this, for he recognized that the large man was the son of the very person who had guided him to this place. They had used him and Elysant to get back in and get that last box opened! Now all he could think of was how he might get that cover back on and resealed—but, of course, he knew he hadn’t the time for that.

“No reason for the two of ye to get yerselves killed,” said the large man.

“Blast, but we ain’t leavin’ no monk witnesses,” said another, and he lifted his bow, aiming for Thaddius.

“More boxes inside, though,” Elysant cried out. “You’ll not open them without us!”

A woman slapped at the bowman’s arms, lowering the weapon.

“So we all got reason to bargain, then,” said the big man.

Brother Thaddius wasn’t listening. He rolled several gems between his fingers, calling to their magic, readying a strike. He counted five enemies and suspected at least a couple more still on the stairs behind them.

Five enemies, two torches.

Thaddius fell into the vibrations of his moonstone, let the magic tickle his sensibilities, begging release.

“Well?” the big man said, coming forward, just beside the center sarcophagus, lowering his sword to put it in line with Thaddius, who stood barely two strides away. “Ye take out what’s in the box and put it down on the floor,” he ordered Elysant.

The small woman glanced up at Thaddius, who gave her a slight nod. These two had been traveling and fighting together for a decade, and so nothing more needed to be said.

“Now!” yelled the big man, so Sister Elysant moved, but not for the open stone box.

She leaped forward, her staff spinning, at the man who was twice her size. He squawked and gawked, surely surprised, as she whipped her staff across with such precision and power that it took the sword from his hand.

Elysant halted the swing by loosening her top-hand grip and pulling the staff down with her bottom hand, letting it slide so that she held it, hands apart, near the middle as she turned it vertical. A punch out with her top hand sent the top of the staff crashing down at the man’s head. He got his arm up to block, but it didn’t really matter, for the strike was a feint, Elysant flipping her top, right hand over to a backhanded grasp and suddenly reversing, pulling that top hand back and down while pressing up powerfully with her left hand, turning her shoulders and stepping forward to strengthen the blow.

Up between the man’s legs came that solid stave, crashing into his balls and lifting him up to his tiptoes.

Behind him, the other ruffians shouted out and leaped to action, the archer lifting his bow once more, along with a second bowman, then ducking below the ceiling line on the stairs.

But it was Brother Thaddius who struck next, releasing the power of his moonstone in a great sheet of wind and placing that wind wall perfectly, just in front of Elysant and blowing back toward the stairs.

The large man, already off balance and grabbing at his smashed balls, went tumbling backwards and rolled away, crashing into the side of the sarcophagus along the wall to the right of the stairs. Both archers tried to fire, but their arrows flew wildly and they, too, flew backwards, the man on the stairs cracking hard against the wall, the lead archer stumbling into his bowman companion.

The torches went out in the gust, both of them, and so Thaddius dismissed the magical light emanating from his diamond, as well, leaving the vault in pitch blackness. Thaddius went down behind the short end of the central sarcophagus, across from the entry. He felt someone roll near and knew it to be Elysant.

He shuffled about and tapped her on the shoulder, warning her to be ready, then inched his way up the sarcophagus, reminded himself about the stones piled atop it, and released the energy of another magical stone, a chunk of graphite.

A sudden flash brightened the room and showed the ruffians, and then that flash, a stroke of lightning, reached across to strike three of them, including both archers.

Again the vault was dark.

“Now,” Elysant whispered, and Thaddius brought forth his diamond light. Elysant leaped out from behind the funerary, driving the end of her staff into the face of the large man like a spear. His nose crunched, his eyes crossed, and he let go of his balls to grasp at his flattened sneezer, blood pouring.

Two others came at the monk woman, though, driving her back from finishing the large man, while the third ruffian, still standing, went around the sarcophagus the other way, charging for Thaddius.

“Behind me!” Elysant cried, backing toward the corner, far right from the stairs and just beyond the smaller box.

Thaddius rushed to the corner, falling into his magic, confident that the finely skilled Elysant could buy him time. She worked her staff brilliantly, slapping aside a woman’s spear thrust, then catching a descending sword midshaft and twisting the staff over and out to tangle with the spear-wielding woman.

She even managed to crack the swordsman about the face as she brought her staff back into a defensive position. Still, she knew that she and her friend were in trouble.

“Hurry,” she pleaded, for over at the stairs one of the archers was back up, trying to set an arrow to his bow, and yet another, a husky woman, stood tall and shook off the effects of the lightning stroke. Even the large man was steadying himself.

And over toward the center, the man who had charged at Thaddius had diverted and was now standing atop that central sarcophagus, hoisting a large rock over his head.

Across went Elysant’s staff, right to left once more, to intercept a sweep of the spear. Pressing out and down, the monk ducked low and left, just avoiding the stab of her other opponent’s sword.

“Dismiss the light!” she cried, snapping the staff back the other way to drive back the swordsman.

Brother Thaddius certainly understood her sentiment, but he disagreed with her choice, for it was too late. The man on the sarcophagus was already throwing the rock, and the darkness would only stop him and Elysant from dodging.

The rock arched in over the two ruffians, forcing Elysant to desperately duck, and Thaddius, behind her, had to turn fast, instinctively slapping at the rock with his hand to help guide it aside so that it only clipped him, doing no real physical harm beyond a bloodied finger and a bruised hip, before it cracked against the corner and fell to the stone floor.

More troublesome, though, was that Thaddius had slapped it with the hand holding the magical gemstones, and two of them fell from his grasp, including a healing soul stone, leaving him only the diamond and one other!

Elysant fought furiously, holding the two at bay, meeting the rush of the third, the woman coming from the stairs, with a sudden stab that stole her breath and his momentum.

Thaddius looked about for his fallen treasures.

“The light!” Elysant yelled.

“No, not that one!” the large man with the splattered sneezer yelled, apparently at the man on the center grave. “No, put it back!”

Thaddius glanced back. The man on the sarcophagus already had another stone lifted up high. Stealing the light wouldn’t help.

The man with the rock paused, gawking in surprise at his unexpectedly frantic friend, and that gave Thaddius all the time he needed to throw forth another gust of wind.

It blew the rock holder back off the far side of the casket. He fell hard to the floor, his rock falling hard to slam him about the shoulder and head, with the other rocks, all smaller, also tumbling atop him.

Thaddius growled at the win. If only he could gather his other stones.

As he resumed his search, though, a loud crash turned his head back around almost immediately, and he stared in shock as the lid of that central sarcophagus slid to the side and fell away.

The vault echoed with screams.

“Run!” the large man howled.

Up stood the contents of that coffin, a withered corpse wearing Abellican robes, its shriveled face and now permanently lipless grin staring out from under a fine black hood, its almost skeletal hands clutching a stave that seemed made of polished stone.

The large man, limping still, bolted for the stairs, but the ghoulish newcomer leaped out of the coffin to land beside him, the staff flashing across to crack the man on the side of the head, shattering his skull and sending him skidding down to the floor in a spray of blood, bone, and brain.

The archer at the stairs let an arrow fly, almost point blank, which seemed to Thaddius a sure hit, but somehow it flew wide of the corpse’s head as the undead thing only dodged slightly.

The archer didn’t wait even long enough to see it, though. He turned and fled up the stairs as soon as he had fired. His companion, too—now somewhat recovered from the shock of Thaddius’s blast, hair dancing, clothing smoking—tried to climb.

But the stairs before him suddenly began to glow, and the second archer shouted in pain as he stepped upon them.

The zombie ghoul turned away from him.

Thaddius didn’t know what to do. The fighting in front of him had stopped, the three battling Elysant scattering to either side of the room, ducking, trying to find a way out. And Elysant seemed uninterested in pursuing them, now that this new and greater monster had appeared.

“Do something,” she begged her magic-using friend.

Thaddius had no idea what that something might be. He thought to dismiss the diamond light, hoping that he and Elysant might find their way out in the darkness before the monster caught them.

The man on the stairs yelled in agony. He had fallen across the steps, the stones red hot, and his clothing ignited, brightening the room. He writhed and fell from the stairs, landing atop the sarcophagus on that wall and then tumbling to the floor, where the flames ate him.

The zombie turned right, where the first two of Elysant’s attackers had circled and were now rushing for the stairs. The third, the last woman into the fray, inched along the right-hand wall, scrambling over the open stone box; then, as the ghoulish monster went for her companions, she sprinted for the stairs.

Elysant, though, ever the ferocious warrior, leaped for the zombie.

Thaddius wanted to tell her No! Run!, but he couldn’t get the words out of his mouth, and he came to see the order as useless anyway as he watched the robed zombie dispatch the other two men along the far wall with effortless speed and power. The stone staff crashed through the shield of the swordsman with stunning force, slamming him in the shoulder and throwing him into the air to slam against the wall.

The woman with the spear stabbed the zombie, but the staff came across in a vicious downward chop to shatter both the prodding weapon and the arm holding it. Up came the stone staff again, the tip flashing under her chin, and with what seemed like a simple shrug, the zombie sent the ruffian flying away. She landed, kneeling, beside the casket along that wall, her head upon it.

The zombie lifted the stone stave to execute her.

“No!” yelled Elysant, and she cracked the zombie across the back of its head with all the force she could channel through her own wooden staff, a blow that would have felled almost any man.

She did save the ruffian woman, for the wraith paused. The woman yelped and flung herself to the side, then scrambled to get her feet under her, running for the stairs, where the other woman was now yelping in pain as she skipped and jumped across the molten field.

Elysant fell back as the ghoulish monster slowly turned about.

“Run!” she yelled—to Thaddius, to the man who had been sent flying, and to the fellow still on the floor behind the central sarcophagus, who was only then extracting himself from the rubble.

“And you, go back to hell!” Elysant growled, setting her staff into a wild and powerful flurry, stabbing, striking, sweeping it across.

The stone staff turned and dipped, rose fast and then set vertically against the floor, defeating the skilled woman’s every attack with practiced ease.

Elysant fell back defensively. “Run,” she said again, though with less confidence, surely. She growled and steadied herself and added more powerfully, “For your lives, I say!”

The man against the wall slipped past behind the zombie. The man on the floor scrambled past, or tried to, as the zombie moved to crush him with the stone staff.

Elysant’s staff intercepted, the monk deftly turning it as a lever to buy the wounded man enough room to get by.

The zombie stepped back and put up its staff, its dead, lidless eyes staring at the woman. The monster seemed to smile wider somehow, and slowly nodded, as if in approval.

The man ran up the stairs, yelping, his boots smoking when he stepped on the still-glowing area.

“Mercy,” the undead thing said, still nodding, and though the word was strained and sounded more like “Erce,” Elysant understood it.

“Thaddius, run,” she said, setting herself in better balance.

But Thaddius hadn’t moved, hadn’t even looked for his gems. He stood, half bent to the floor, diamond still in hand, looking back at the zombie with his jaw hanging open.

“Run!” Elysant yelled, as if trying to break him from a trance.

“Waited,” the ghoul gasped. “… inally fre…”

Elysant moved as if to strike.

“Wait!” Thaddius yelled at her.

“It didn’t hesitate to strike our attackers,” Thaddius continued when she stopped. “Why? Why is it standing passively now?”

“Fi… nal… ly frrrrr… eee,” the ghoulish monster forced out. “Guar… di… an… take… all.”

“What does it mean?” Elysant demanded.

The zombie extended a hand and opened wide its bony fingers, two stones falling from its grasp: an orange citrine, much like the one Thaddius had used to open the stone box, and a shining red ruby. It let go of the staff with its other hand, the stone item falling hard to clang against the floor at Elysant’s feet.

“Take,” the zombie intoned, reaching up to unfasten the cloak and hood, which fell to the floor. “Take all.”

Thaddius and Elysant recoiled when the thing then untied its robe. “I… am… free… rest.”

The robe fell to the floor. The naked corpse shivered violently for a few moments, then crumpled to the floor in a pile of jumbled bones and paper-thin gray skin.

Elysant fell back a step. “By Saint Abelle,” she breathed.

Brother Thaddius stepped past her to retrieve the citrine and ruby. He stayed low, eyeing the staff, narrow and long. “Stone,” he said, shaking his head, for how could that be? He moved to touch it, but hesitated, and instead stood up, staring in shocked disbelief at his friend. “The staff looks like stone, like fine marble. How?”

Elysant dropped her own staff, stepped over, and, with a growl, lifted the unusual weapon, gripping it strongly in both hands. Her eyes went wide immediately.

“What?” Thaddius demanded.

“Power,” she said. “The enchantment. I feel it.” She put the weapon through some movement, twirling it and stabbing left, then sweeping it behind her back to catch it and present it defensively before her. “Perfect balance.”

“Such a stone is too brittle!” Thaddius reasoned.

In response, Elysant brought the weapon up over her head and drove it with all her might against the open rim of the middle sarcophagus. It struck with enough force to take a small chip from the funerary stone, but the staff itself showed not a scratch.

“Apparently, not so,” said the woman, shaking her head, obviously beyond impressed with this treasure.

“‘Take it all,’ the monster said,” mused Thaddius, as Elysant bent to inspect the damage to the sarcophagus. “He was guarding—”

“No monster!” Elysant interrupted, her gaze now removed from the sarcophagus as she stared wide-eyed at the lid that had been pushed aside.

“What do you know?”

“Belfour Albrek,” she read softly, as if she could barely get the words past her lips. “The Rock of Vanguard.”

“Saint Belfour,” Thaddius breathed, immediately falling to his knees. He began to sob, overcome. They had been saved by the undead specter of St. Belfour!

Elysant followed him to the floor, gasping and laughing, not crying, but every sound came from the same place of reverent disbelief.

After a long while and many prayers, the two gathered up the corpse carefully and moved to the open coffin. There they paused, however, for the box wasn’t empty. A second staff lay within, and a small pouch.

Thaddius took the pouch and opened it, nodded as he discovered a small trove of sacred Ring Stones. When she took the staff, though, Elysant wasn’t similarly nodding.

“What is it?” Thaddius asked.

“Not for fighting,” the woman replied, and she held it forth.

Thaddius brought the magical diamond closer and increased its radiance. The staff was of wood, but like none he had ever seen before. Green and shot with lines of silver, the body of the light staff was marked by six sockets made of silver and connected by a line that resembled a thread, if that thread had been fashioned of the stuff of soul stones. One of the sockets held another diamond.

“I have never…” the monk remarked, taking the staff from Elysant. He bit short the remark with a gasp, for as soon as he gripped the staff, he heard clearly the song of that diamond, as surely as he heard the one in his other hand, as if he had already coaxed its magic into a usable state.

He looked at Elysant and smiled widely. “Not for your kind of fighting, perhaps,” he said wryly, and he couldn’t wait to find some time to more properly test this treasure. “Let us be done here and let the dead properly rest.”

The companions reverently arranged the body of St. Belfour in his sarcophagus. Thaddius then used Belfour’s own citrine to seal the funerary box, again uttering many prayers.

They gathered up the two staves, the robe, the cloak, and the hood, and Thaddius recovered the rest of his fallen gems, putting them in the pouch beside the newfound ones. They took the three coffers from the small stone box, and then that container, too, Thaddius resealed with the magical stone.

“He is at rest now,” Thaddius said, looking back one last time from the stairs, which had cooled to normal once more.

“He was waiting for Abellicans to come and retrieve the items,” Elysant said. She looked at the robe she was holding. “We should have dressed him.”

“He dropped the robe as another treasure for us,” Thaddius replied. “Why would he have done that if he wanted us to simply put it back on him?” He smiled at his companion. “You follow the fighting style of Saint Belfour. Wear it.”

Elysant looked at the robe skeptically.

“He wasn’t much taller than you,” Thaddius teased.

“It should be put under glass,” she argued. “We cannot let it rot!”

“If that was truly the robe of Saint Belfour, it has been down here for more than two centuries,” Thaddius reminded. “Do you doubt the magic of it, given everything else we have found, given the saint’s insistence that we take everything? Put it on, my friend.” He looked at the sarcophagus in the middle of the room, drawing Elysant’s gaze with his own. “If I understood it correctly, the ghost of a saint bade you to wear it.”

Elysant’s hands trembled the entire time she was changing. She was putting on the very robes worn by the legendary St. Belfour of Vanguard.

“Well?” Thaddius asked when she had the robe tied about her. The fit was loose, but not terribly so.

Elysant smiled and took up the stone staff. She started to speak but then just kept smiling, wider and wider, and shaking her head as if in disbelief.

Thaddius understood. She could feel the power, the magical energy, the holy glory.

“Let us be far from this place,” Thaddius said.

“What of the thieves who fled?”

Brother Thaddius shook his head. They didn’t matter, he knew. They didn’t matter at all.


 

Chapter One
These Songs of Magic

Aoleyn looked back from the windswept bluff to the small group winding down the rocky decline.

So small. A hundred, perhaps, no more.

The tears in her eyes were from the wind, the woman told herself. Yes, the previous night had brought amazing and dramatic changes, a wall of mountains melting, a huge and deep lake pouring forth across the flatland low desert.

Yes, her world had so suddenly turned upside down. Not for the first time—or the last, she knew, wiping some moisture from her cheek.

It was just the wind, she told herself, trying desperately and futilely to put aside the reality that, for every one of that band of refugees moving down from the Ayamharas Plateau, thirty other men, women, and children had been slaughtered in the course of a single day.

Yesterday.

Aoleyn hadn’t many friends in the world—no close ones beyond Bahdlahn, who was now among the refugee group fleeing the conquered plateau—but that didn’t lessen the pain, however she tried to hide it. The sheer scale and suddenness of the destruction overwhelmed her.

The woman pushed a long strand of her black hair out from in front of her face, blinked her dark eyes determinedly to push the sadness and the tears away, and then put a hand on her bare belly, feeling the chain she had fastened there and the multiple gemstones set upon it. Her finger brushed the smoothness of one, a moonstone, and there her hand lingered, connecting her more intimately to the magical energy within that small stone.

She coaxed the power, bit by bit, until her fingers trembled with the magical vibrations, until the song of the gem filled her thoughts.

She called upon the magic, she leaped away, and she began to fly, like a bird on the wing. Around the side of the great chasm, which had only yesterday been a mountain lake, she went, staying low, not daring to go over the rim and expose herself to the conquerors, who were already as thick as ants along the southern rim of the bowl.

Not daring to expose herself to the giant among them, a huge and beautiful and terrible creature she had seen riding a monster, a snakelike dragon that seemed to swim through the air.

Sometimes no more than her own height above the ground, sometimes weaving about clusters of trees, she sped along the new canyon’s western rim, avoiding any signs of movement, giving wide berth the one village on this side, a place that had been sacked even as she and the others had made their desperate escape across the deep and dark waters. In a very short while, she had traversed the length of the canyon and come to the thicker trees and sheltering rocks of the foothills of the great mountain looming above the southeastern rim. Fireach Speuer, it was called, thick and tall and casting long shadows each morning across the waters of the lake that had been. The huge and hulking mountain that had been her home. One area of flat ground, more than halfway up those slopes, had served as the summer camp for her people, the Usgar, and a stony plateau at the mountain’s high peak had been their winter home, the seat of their power, the source of their magic, of the Coven’s magic, of Aoleyn’s magic.

Aoleyn had to set down in those foothills, to pause and consider her luck—or was it, perhaps, fate? For only because she had been fleeing her people, running away from the Usgar and all that they believed, had she escaped the tide of strange-looking conquerors that had crested every mountain pass and ridge like a great wave of death breaking over Fireach Speuer itself.

She wasn’t even sure how she felt about the obvious conquest and destruction of the Usgar. Had these invaders done her a favor, done the world a favor, in ridding everyone of the foul barbarian tribe and their murderous ways?

No, Aoleyn found that she couldn’t bring herself to think like that. She had not hated all of the Usgar, after all, and had considered many, particularly the tribe’s subjugated women, to be victims beaten into acquiescence. She had wanted to save them all from the ways of Usgar, not from these strange invaders, who, after all, she hadn’t known existed until she had flown over them as they destroyed the lake village known as Fasach Crann. Only when Aoleyn had come to understand that she could not save the Usgar from themselves had she fled.

Aoleyn grimaced, which looked much like her crooked little smile, when she thought of Tay Aillig, the leader of the Usgar, her tormentor, whom she had brought down from on high in an avalanche of stone in the midst of her escape. She looked down at her hand, now the small and delicate hand of a young woman, tattooed with the pad markings of a cloud leopard’s large paw.

She felt the vibrations of that tattoo, of the bits of gems she had implanted to make the image, and the magic they contained, a power that had transformed that hand and arm into the limb of a cloud leopard. She imagined those long claws now, and saw again the last look of horror on Tay Aillig’s face as he lay there, trapped among the fallen stones. She had shown him no mercy.

She grimaced again as she remembered the killing move—her sweeping claw taking the man’s throat so easily, so fluidly; the blood, so much blood, gushing down the front of Tay Aillig; the shocked expression of a confused man who had thought himself a god—frozen forever in the mind of Aoleyn.

So be it.

A deep breath blew the memory aside for the moment and brought Aoleyn back into the present, where she quickly realized that she was not as alone as she had hoped. She ducked fast amid a tumble of boulders.

She heard them. Their voices, melodic, a bit higher-pitched, undeniably beautiful, sounded not so far away.

Aoleyn crouched lower in the shadows of the boulders. She called upon the magic of the diamond set in her belly ring to absorb the nearby light and deepen the shadows about her.

Many enemies were nearby, she quickly realized. Her thumb rolled across the band set on her ring finger, feeling the ruby and the serpentine set there.

Serpentine to protect her from flames, ruby to create fire.

Aoleyn winced yet again, remembering the smell of the charred corpses she had left in a cave. Men, Usgar men, guarding her and taunting her.

Then melting before her.

I did what I had to do, she stubbornly told herself, and though it was true, the image haunted her still.

And then she forgot it, in the blink of a surprised eye, when she saw him, a tall, golden-skinned man whose nose was as red as the blood that had gushed from Tay Aillig’s neck, and that patch lined by blue streaks as brilliant as the waters of the lost Loch Beag under an autumn sun. He wore a shirt of armor, rows of golden bars, it seemed, and shot with lines of brilliant silver. So, too, was his helm of gold. How could it be anything else, for what mundane metal might have been worthy of this beautiful golden-skinned man?

Aoleyn’s trance broke when she scanned to his lifted arm, for he held a spear above his shoulder—no, it was at the end of a Y-shaped throwing stick!—and was aiming it right at her.

Aoleyn had not yet coaxed to a crescendo the magical song of any of her gemstones.

Aoleyn had no fire or lightning to throw.

Aoleyn had nowhere to run.

* * *

His wounds would not kill him. He knew that now. He looked down at the golden cast that had been poured over his hip and side.

Poured! Liquid gold!

It should have killed him, of course, and surely it had hurt, bursts of agony the Usgar warrior had never imagined possible. But whatever the wrap was that these strange, tall, painted-faced humans had placed on him before pouring had kept him from melting under the molten metal.

Now he was feeling better, too much better to deny. His strength was returning, though one of his legs obviously had been broken in his fall. They were going to pour gold on that injury, too, he believed, judging from the way the shaman or priest or whatever he might be had been indicating the course to his helpers. He couldn’t feel any pain down there, couldn’t feel anything at all, and he desperately hoped that their medicine would fix that, as well.

He propped himself up on his elbows as one woman passed him.

“Do you know who I am?” he declared imperiously. “Tay Ail—”

She punched him across the face, then put her foot on his throat and slammed him back down to the ground, her weapon, a flat wooden paddle with the teeth of some animal lining both its edges, hovering threateningly just above his face.

Tay Aillig is my uncle, Egard finished in his thoughts, but he wisely said no more.

He closed his eyes and tried to fall far, far away.

The woman’s return, with another of these strange-looking people, surprised him. They grabbed him by the shoulders and hoisted him up to a sitting position.

“What—” he started, but then he shrieked as the woman drove something sharp into the back of his shoulder. He turned fast to look at her, then shrieked again as the man did the same to the other shoulder.

They each stabbed him again in a different location—no, not stabbed, he realized when the woman got him in the back of the arm. They weren’t simply stabbing him; they were hooking him!

A third stranger, or perhaps more than one, pulled on ropes behind him. Up went his arms, above his head, then up went Egard, hoisted by eight separate hook driven into his flesh. He was standing then, though his legs remained numb and were not supporting him, and then he was off the ground, hanging there helplessly, shocking bolts of pain, blisters of agony, shooting through him.

Barely, through the pain, he felt pieces of that same healing cloth being set about the hooks, and he watched, mesmerized and horrified, as these handlers poured more liquid gold, sealing and supporting the hooked areas, stopping his flesh from simply tearing and thus dropping him to the ground.

He screamed and writhed, twisting furiously, which only made the pain even more intense.

They brought before him a long piece of metal, shining golden, polished so that he could see himself.

A full-length mirror?

It made no sense. None of this made any sense!

Another came up behind him and, from over his shoulder, peered at him in the mirror.

Egard recoiled at the sight, the shock of it overcoming his agony for just a heartbeat. For this one’s face was hidden behind a mask, if it was a mask, of a human skull, as if that skull had been pressed right through the flesh of his face.

Egard tried to turn his head to get a better look, but the stranger cupped him about the ears and forced him to stare into the mirror.

And in that reflection, Egard’s eyes met those of the stranger, locked gazes drawing him deeper into the image, deeper into this monstrous man.

He felt the intimate invasion, the stranger boring in, as keenly as if fingers were pushing through his eye sockets. He writhed and cried out and closed his eyes, but too late.

For the skull-faced augur was in there, in his thoughts, probing.

Aoleyn threw her hands out in front of her defensively, desperately, and turned her head so fast in terror that she didn’t even notice her arms transforming.

She leaped, instinctively, straight up, and she was high above the ground before she even realized the transformation. Suddenly she loomed twenty feet above her attacker, who stared up at her in shock. Down she dropped, and she braced herself against the fall.

She landed lightly and pounced immediately, burying the golden man beneath. She slapped him on the ground repeatedly, hitting him several times before she even realized that her arms, like her legs, were those of a leopard and not a woman.

Aoleyn pulled her head back and looked down at the mauled stranger, trembling, gasping, covered in the blood pouring from deep, raking wounds.

What had happened? How had it happened?

Her tattoo, she realized. The leopard paw–like gemstone that she had used to mark her body had somehow taken over, or her terror had called to it on a level below her consciousness. Pure survival had demanded the swift change, and so it had come to her without her even consciously willing it!

Aoleyn, too, trembled, her thoughts spinning as she tried to sort through this shocking transformation.

Her tattoo? Was the connection truly so powerful and intimate? It had taken over in that moment of desperation, as if she had become something else, something animal, something monstrous.

Like the fossa.

She looked at the torn man before her, expiring, certainly, as his blood continued to flow.

“No!” Aoleyn growled, and she forced her own limbs back to those of a young woman. She called upon the wedstone immediately, demanding of it the healing magic that would allow her to save this stranger.

She knew she should be away—other enemies were about her and had likely heard the commotion. But she stayed, and she demanded the magic. He was an enemy. He had tried to kill her. She was justified in killing him, she knew.

She knew, but she didn’t care. Not this time, not when it had been done by something within herself that she simply didn’t understand, and something she truly feared. She stayed and sent the waves of magic forth, over and over. She shifted the focus of the wedstone and used it to free her own spirit to go within the mind of this wounded person, to possess him.

A barrage of images and names flashed before her.

Xoconai.

Scathmizzane.

Golden temples… domed pyramids… a vast basin to the sea…

So many images assailed her—no, not that, she came to see. So many images informed her. She went back to her own body and took a deep breath. She heard others approaching. She had to leave.

The man was breathing again, lying still and barely conscious. He was no goblin, she realized, not physically at least.

“It’s not paint,” she whispered of the red and blue markings on his face.

But he was a man, she knew now. Some type of man, though she could not begin to understand in that moment. Nor could she remain. She had to hope she had done enough to save him, for her own sake and not just for his.

She called upon the moonstone in her belly ring and flew away.

An exhausted and drained Egard lost himself, with his reflection in the mirror, like some golden ghost of Egard, mocking him from the other side of death. It seemed to float about as he twisted a bit on his hooks and, for a while, the man, delusional in his pain, actually thought that he was in there, in the mirror, and not within his own body, as if he were walking the fine line between the living and the dead.

That notion grew stronger when Egard again noticed the second image in the mirror, a skeleton or a floating skull, hovering behind him. He wasn’t afraid. He was too lost in agony to be afraid.

The skull came up right behind his shoulder. A hand, of flesh and not of bone, was raised up and set against the side of his face, and then a second was placed on the other side, holding his head still.

The skull began to hum, or moan, or something in between.

“Pixquicauh,” Egard said, though he didn’t mean to and had no idea what that word might mean.

Then, suddenly, horrifically, Egard knew that he was not alone, not in this room and not even in his own mind. This monster, whatever it was—Pixquicauh?—stared at him through the eyeholes of the skull, invading his very soul.

He felt its presence within and only then remembered the experience from before. It asked him, it probed him, and it took from him the answers before he could even respond. He realized a violation more profound and painful than the eight hooks that had been plunged into his skin, as if his very identity, not his physical body, were being torn open by this monster.

He shook and thrashed, trying to expel the possessor.

But it stayed, and it smiled behind the mask.

Egard began to lose himself to the jumble of his own breaking mind.

Then, suddenly, he was free, jolted back to the present reality. He was Egard, nephew of Tay Aillig, hanging on hooks before a golden mirror.

The monster remained, leering at him through the skull’s eyeholes, over his shoulder.

It demanded of him.

“Pixquicauh,” he recited.

The monster smiled behind the skull mask and walked away.

Egard swayed on eight hooks.

* * *

She was not hindered by the steep incline, for it was no more difficult to fly up the side of the mountain than to soar above level ground. And here, with the many ridges, tree lines, boulder tumbles, and uneven ground, Aoleyn did not have to worry as much about being seen, particularly since the mountain, this early morning, was hugged by a thick mist, not quite a fog.

She did remain very cautious, though, in stark comparison to the day before, when she had flown openly down the slopes of this same mountain, defying the Usgar to catch her. Now, however, columns of these strange-looking invaders lined the trails of Fireach Speuer, from Craos’a’diad at the peak to the lake-turned-canyon below.

Aoleyn paused at one point and used a small lens her friend Talmadge had loaned her to look across that canyon, to the far northern rim of the bowl. She breathed a sigh of relief when she noted none of these invaders there, and she took heart that her friends and the refugees continued to move swiftly away. She had come back here to scout, to garner information, and they would need that to get away, she reminded herself.

But she wasn’t quite sure of how she might get it.

She moved her hand to the left side of her head, to a cuff she wore over that ear. A small gem, a cat’s-eye, was set in the cuff, granting her clear vision in the dimmest of light, but the cuff itself, made of turquoise, was also magical, powerfully so. Aoleyn closed her eyes and sent her thoughts into it, hearing the calm song, using it to guide her senses to a nearby tree, where a small bird perched upon a limb.

Into that bird went Aoleyn’s thoughts, easily taking control, and off it flew, swinging around the mountain, more in line with the main trails leading down to the lake. She felt the tension in the small bird and understood, through its senses, that it had detected an owl, and so she too spotted the predatory fowl.

Aoleyn’s spirit abandoned the small bird and flew fast, moving to her favored host, and a moment later the owl took wing, guided by the distant woman.

Now she could hear, so keenly, so crisply, and she caught a voice soon enough, melodic and smooth—she thought perhaps it might belong to one of the Usgar women. But no, when she came into sight of the creature, she discovered the pitch of the voice was deceptive, for it belonged to an invader male, a tall and strong man carrying an armload of firewood, moving for a saddled lizard that was tethered to a tree not far away.

Now she had her target. She swooped the owl down low, claws extended, to startle the man, and she took some pleasure when he dropped the wood in reaction, spouting words she did not understand, though she did recognize them as curses. She noted the area and the landmarks, then released the owl, immediately coming back to her sensibilities. Now Aoleyn called upon another gemstone. She placed her hand on her hip, fingers covering the large gray backing of the orange stone in the center of the pendant that hung from her chain belt.

Again she left her body, but this time it was more than the simple ray of thoughts she might use to briefly inhabit the sensibilities of an animal. This time she was fully removed from her corporeal form, spirit-walking out from her own flesh, bone, and blood.

She looked back at her physical form and considered her concealment, then flew up and scanned all about, making sure that no enemies were near. Off she went for the firewood gatherer, and she found him easily enough, sputtering a stream of invective, loading the logs into his arms once more.

Aoleyn entered him like a sudden gale, overwhelming him before he could begin to realize the possession, assaulting his mind and his spirit. She had achieved complete surprise and quickly dominated her target, fast cordoning his spirit deep in a pocket within his own mind. She began scouring that mind for what she wanted: expansions of the glances she had found in her melding with the other sidhe—no, not sidhe, but xoconai.

It was not long before she found her answers. Images of war, of conquest, of the complete domination of the world, filled her mind’s eye. A massive column of these strange humanoids, tens of thousands strong—more beings than Aoleyn had ever seen, had ever conceived of—all gathered to make war. And at their head, a shining golden god, huge and beautiful and terrible.

One she recognized.

One she had seen riding a dragon that seemed to swim in the sky.

Aoleyn recoiled.

You will not succeed, she imparted to the xoconai in his own language—and she was amazed at how easily that language had come to her through the intimate thought-sharing with this stranger.

She felt the xoconai’s confusion and understood much of the ensuing barrage of silent questions, the snippets of bewilderment.

Aoleyn then fled the creature’s mind and returned to her own body. She knew the invader, the xoconai, would be dazed after her vicious assault and likely wouldn’t ever truly sort through it. Soon she was physically flying again, farther up the mountain. She had one last task to accomplish up here before she returned to her companions—such as they were—and told them what she knew.

And then she and the others would have to leave and go far, far away.

She climbed to the top of Fireach Speuer, along the western rim of peaks, moving along the same areas, she noted, where she had first seen the demon fossa on that long-ago night, far away, from her perch in a pine tree in the sacred grove of her people. She came to the edge of one ridge and looked back that way, her old home in sight.

The Usgar winter plateau teemed with invaders. Nearer to her, but still distant, within the sacred grove and the meadow called Dail Usgar, she noted movement and heard soft singing. That intrigued her but also terrified her. Were her people still alive, any of them? Was Mairen there along with the other witches? Or had the xoconai taken the ceremonial place as their own?

Early that same morning, after all, she had seen their god figure fly from Dail Usgar on his serpentine dragon.

Aoleyn resisted the urge to investigate, reminding herself of her other purpose here, one that she hoped would help her many refugee companions truly escape this region. Besides, she thought, nodding as the memory came clear, she could get a more complete understanding of the events in Dail Usgar from a much better and much safer angle. Off she went, to the east, to the highest peak of Fireach Speuer.

The Usgar called it Craos’a’diad, the Mouth of God, but to Aoleyn, the gaping hole in the high plateau atop Fireach Speuer seemed no more than an execution pit—though one that led to a series of crystal-encrusted caverns that were marvelously magical. For all her thoughts about the beauty below, though, it was hard for her to consider her next move in entering the chasm, because it was indeed a place where the Usgar performed their sacrifices.

Her own, among many others.

Aoleyn approached carefully from behind cover and glanced down cautiously. And it was a good thing that she had taken the precautions, she knew immediately, for a surprising number of xoconai invaders were up here this day, some building structures Aoleyn could not identify, others placing golden ornaments all about. Aoleyn noted that all, from those who seemed to be warriors to those moving more like common folk, men and women alike, had those distinctive markings, the red nose with the blue central face about it. Some of the colors were bright, some paler, but all so incredibly distinctive.

They weren’t guarding the chasm, but getting down there without being seen presented a challenge.

She wondered if perhaps it would be better to leave and return at night.

But no. Aoleyn shook her head determinedly. She had gone into the lair of the demon fossa. She had faced the wrath of Mairen and the Coven and had thrown them aside. She had met Tay Aillig in battle and he lay dead now, and she unscathed.

She reached to her moonstone once more, bringing it to its fullest power. She called upon the graphite bar in her anklet and threw its magic into that of the moonstone, swirling and churning. A thundercloud formed and she guided it above Craos’a’diad.

As one, the xoconai looked up, obviously surprised by the suddenness of the small storm, though such events were of course not unknown in the mountains.

Aoleyn willed her storm to rain on them. She added lightning blasts, sending the xoconai scrambling—some rushing for cover, others moving to protect the items they had brought to the plateau.

Aoleyn smiled at her cleverness, then reached to her diamond and, again, her moonstone. She marked her angle and created a globe of darkness about her form, blurring it.

She called another lightning bolt from her storm cloud, cracking down upon the stone, as she flew off suddenly and swiftly, and then for a third bolt, to steal the attention as she dove for the chasm, slipping into its dark depths without slowing.

Down in the chasm, she released and reversed her darkness, giving herself some light. The pit went down a long way, but there were layers of caves above its bottom. Aoleyn went into the highest of these, caverns lined with giant crystals growing from their walls. She had walked this way during her first visit here, in her trials to determine if she had the capability to serve in the sacred coven of thirteen witches dancing for the god Usgar.

She had made her magical jewelry from the stones in these crystals and in these very caves.

Now she needed more.

She let go of the powers of her own jewelry stones, except for one, a red garnet hanging on her right earring, and began calling to the vibrations of magic all around her, lighting diamond-flecked crystals like torches as she passed. Through the power of the garnet, a stone that showed her magic, Aoleyn listened for variations in the music of the stone vibrations, seeking those with powers different than the ones she had thus far collected.

The caverns were long and winding and the process took time, but every time Aoleyn thought it was time to quit, she came upon another crystal teeming with energy she had not before utilized, like one with thick flecks of smooth green and red striations, a bloodstone. When she called upon its energy, Aoleyn felt her muscles tighten. At first she feared that she was becoming again leopard-like, but no, she was merely growing stronger—much stronger.

She kept looking.

The day turned to night outside the caves, and Aoleyn kept looking. When she grew tired and hungry, she moved to the chasm. She didn’t go up, though. Instead, she traveled down to the lower tunnels, to a room she had known in the weeks she had remained here, recuperating from the attempt to sacrifice her. In a deep cave, she entered a warm chamber, one with a pool fed by a small waterfall and full of fish. A chamber whose walls vibrated with magical power. She bathed and ate and slept, but only briefly, and was back at her work before the next dawn had broken.

That second day passed, and Aoleyn kept looking, now with a handful of small crystals in her small pack, each thick with different gems.

Despite the fear that she might have trouble finding her fleeing companions, Aoleyn would have kept going—there were even more variations, she was sure—except that her journey was interrupted by a song, a harmony different than she knew, perhaps, but sung by voices that she thought she recognized.

The Coven was singing more loudly this night, more intensely and forcefully.

Curious, Aoleyn headed down again to the pool chamber, for in there, she knew, there was a better way to spy upon the Coven in Dail Usgar. With the power of the wedstone, the powerful witch left her corporeal body beside the underground pool and flew up to the ceiling. She found the magical vein of crystal near the waterfall and entered it, traveling up past the higher caverns, up to the surface, entering the God Crystal itself, the leaning obelisk the Usgar named as their god, in the center of the sacred lea where the witches danced and sang.

And they were dancing, though there were only twelve, she noted, after a long while counting the spinning bodies as they danced in a circle about her host. She could see out of the crystal, but not clearly, and so she wasn’t sure who might be missing. It wasn’t Mairen, though, that much she knew, for the leader of the Coven, the Usgar-righinn, stood in her usual place beside the God Crystal, directing the song in a voice loud and clear.

Soon after, Aoleyn felt a deep discomfort, a profound chill, coming over her.

She had felt this before, near the chasm, where the ghosts of the dead had been captured and held. She wasn’t in her mortal body, so he didn’t have any breath to hold, but Aoleyn kept her thoughts very still, her spirit on edge here, feeling a threat.

A xoconai walked onto the plateau. But not just any xoconai. No, this was a giant one, tall as the trees, lean and beautiful.

And terrible. Aoleyn could feel its power.

More coldness filtered through her, and she came to understand, to her horror, that souls were passing around her, within the crystal beside her, but spreading forth like the seed of a man onto the sacred lea. There they grew and took form, specters, like men and women formed of mist, their faces twisted in agony.

They, too, began to dance, very near the crystal, and Aoleyn saw them, saw their faces—and knew their faces! Some of them, at least, for they were the Usgar, her own tribe.

She saw Tay Aillig!

And she saw the ghosts of xoconai, too, many, and of lakemen, many.

They danced and they twirled along a winding line, ending up before the tall xoconai god. And there, they faded, their essence diminishing, seemingly absorbed by the giant being before them.

No, not absorbed, Aoleyn came to understand. No, they were begin obliterated of the thing they were, their essences stripped of identity, their souls turned to…

To what?

Aoleyn felt the God Crystal thrumming with power, growing stronger, collecting the energy of souls destroyed.

All around her, the witches of the Coven danced, singing reverently to this creature, this monster, this glorious golden god.

And the being looked at the God Crystal—nay, at her!—and it smiled, and Aoleyn knew that it saw her despite the fact that she should have been invisible.

She fled. For all her life, for all her soul, for all her eternity, Aoleyn fled.

She fled back to her body by the pond in the cave far below. She fled on foot through the tunnel to the chasm, then brought forth the power of her moonstone and flew up as fast as she could manage, coming clear of Craos’a’diad, not even worrying about any who might see her emerge—and fortunately no xoconai or anyone else was up there in this dark hour.

As quickly as she could manage, she fled back down the mountain and soared along the western rim of the chasm, heading for the place where she had left her companions.

Aoleyn had only ever known life here, on Fireach Speuer, but now she knew the only thing to do was to flee.

To run away as far as she could.

 

Excerpted from Song of the Risen God, copyright © 2019 by R.A. Salvatore

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