“Ghost Dagger” Excerpt

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Chapter 1 – Foretelling

Blood and fire filled the dreams of Caina Amalas.

In one dream she was a girl of eleven, running through darkened corridors to find her father. She burst through the door into his library, certain she would find him working late into the night at his desk. He would comfort her, tell her that everything would be all right.

Instead her father slumped with his eyes glassy and his face slack, his mind destroyed by her mother’s sorcery.

Caina screamed.

In another dream she stood atop a high tower, a storm raging overhead, the Imperial capital spread out beneath her. A great black crystal stood near her, pulsing with an inner green glow. It had been made from her blood, and grown bloated with the lives of the innocent. Maglarion, the sorcerer who had taught her mother, turned to face her, a crystal of green fire burning in his left eye.

He clapped his hands, and black blood erupted from the crystal, drowning the world.

In a third dream she stood in the cellar of a watchtower, gazing upon the twisted corpse of Alastair Corus, the only man she had ever taken into her bed. She had not loved him, but she had not wished for him to die in agony from Maglarion’s necromancy.

Then the corpse stirred, green fire blazing in its empty eyes, fingers reaching for her throat.

In the final dream she stood atop a black pyramid, the sky burning. A pyre blazed before atop the pyramid, the tomb of a sorcerer-king. A man in the black robes of a master magus stalked towards her, the fire painting his gaunt face with the color of blood.

He pointed at her, fire blazing around his fingers, and the world disappeared in flames…

 

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Caina awoke gasping, sweat drenching her face and thin shift.

For a moment of panicked disorientation could not remember where she was. She lay upon on a narrow bed in a small room, the walls built of rough-hewn stone. A wooden chest and a stool were the only other furnishings, and the faintest hint of dawn light leaked through the boards of the door. For a terrible instant she saw Maglarion standing in the corner of the room, or perhaps Kalastus, the fire of his sorcery crackling around his fingers.

But the last echoes of the dream faded, and Caina saw only her small room in the Vineyard’s outer wall.

Dreams. They had been only dreams.

Caina swung her feet to the floor and pushed the sweaty hair from her face.

“Scars of the mind,” she whispered.

Halfdan had told her that just as wounds left scars upon the flesh, so too did pain leave nightmares upon the mind. And Caina had scars upon her mind, so many scars. She was only nineteen, but sometimes it felt as if she had lived a hundred years, all of them filled with pain and horror.

She shivered as the sweat cooled against her skin. The nightmares had left her feeling utterly alone. She had suffered so much pain, and all for what? A cold room and an empty bed?

Her right hand curled into a fist.

But if she had not fought Kalastus, he would have burned Rasadda to cinders. A quarter of a million men, women, and children would have perished in his pyromancy.

And if she had not stopped Maglarion, he would have destroyed the Imperial capital, killing over a million people, and thousands more as the Empire collapsed into civil war.

She was a Ghost nightfighter, a spy and assassin in service of the Emperor, and if not for the pain she had endured, so many people would have died.

Surely the nightmares were a small price to pay for that.

But still she felt cold and tired.

There was only one cure for that.

Caina rose from her bed and stretched, loosening her muscles. Her limbs flowed through the movements Akragas had taught her as they sparred every morning in the shadow of the Vineyard’s watchtower. The high punch, the middle block, leg sweep, backward throw, all the moves she had practiced over and over until she could perform them without thought. When she finished, her arms trembled with fatigue, but she only felt a little better.

So she donned a loose shirt and pants, and ran barefoot up the seven terraces of the Vineyard, past the grapes growing upon their wooden trellises, to the base of the high watchtower, and then back to her room in the Vineyard’s outer wall.

And then she did it thrice more.

After, sweat soaked her, and her breath came harsh and ragged, but she felt much better.

Work, she knew, was the only cure for sorrow.

 

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After she had bathed and dressed, Caina sat in the Vineyard’s library and ate breakfast.

The Vineyard’s sixth terrace held a medium-sized villa, and the villa had a library. The wooden shelves stored hundreds of books, and the windows had a fine view of the vine-covered terraces and the valley outside the walls. Caina ate breakfast here whenever the business of the Ghosts brought her to the Vineyard, eating the sharp cheese favored the Disali and drinking the bitter black tea she preferred. And as she ate, she sat at a table and read whatever book caught her fancy. A history of the Second Empire’s wars against the Caerish tribes of the west. A description of the city of New Kyre, accounts of its Assembly and archons and stormsingers. Fanciful tales from the shining city of Cyrica Urbana, accounts of bold harem girls and wish-granting djinni.

A history of the Saddai Ashbringers…

Caina pushed the book away. For an instant she remembered Corazain’s book of pyromantic sorcery, whispering in her head…

She had seen enough of the Ashbringers to last her a lifetime.

Caina turned her head and saw a man standing in the library’s door. He was in his early fifties, with stringy iron-gray hair, a bushy gray beard, and arms thick with corded muscle. He wore the blue robe and furred cap of a merchant of middling prosperity.

Of course, he was no more a merchant than Caina was a Countess, a merchant’s daughter, an impoverished caravan guard, or any of the other disguises she donned while spying.

“Halfdan,” said Caina, putting down her tea.

“Aye,” said Halfdan. The Ghost circlemaster sat beside her and helped himself to a slice of her cheese.

“You’re back earlier than you thought,” said Caina.

“So I am,” said Halfdan. “Is there any bread left?”

Caina passed him the loaf. “Why are you back so soon?”

He smiled. “You tell me.”

Caina found herself grinning. It was an old game between them now. She had a knack for observation, for noticing things, and Halfdan liked to keep it sharp.

It had saved their lives more than once.

“So,” said Caina. “You wanted to travel from here to the Imperial capital and then return. It’s six or seven days to Malarae, depending upon the roads. You’ve been gone four days. Which means you never got to Malarae.”

“Very good,” said Halfdan. He looked at her tea and scowled. “How you can stomach that stuff, I’ll never know.”

“Komnene likes it.”

“Komnene also likes boiled vegetables for every meal, the poor woman. But her inability to appreciate fine cuisine does not explain why I have returned after only four days.”

“Riata,” said Caina. “You like to pass through the town of Riata on your way to Malarae, to gather news. It’s two days to Riata, so you went there and returned.”

“Correct,” said Halfdan. “Which leaves only one question. Why? I intended to go to Malarae, to report to the Emperor and tell him of your…exploits…in Rasadda. Why did I reach Riata and then return here?”

Caina thought it over.

“Because,” she said, voice quiet, “there is trouble in Riata, and you want my help.”

Halfdan nodded. “What kind of trouble?”

“Sorcery,” said Caina, her hands curling into fists beneath the table. “There are a dozen nightfighters at the Vineyard right now, and all of them have more experience than I do. But I’m the only one who can sense sorcery.”

Her fingers twitched toward her stomach, brushing the plain blue linen of her dress. Maglarion’s scars had left her sterile, but the torments he had inflicted upon her had also left her with the ability to sense sorcery.

“Aye,” said Halfdan.

“What kind of trouble?” said Caina. “The magi? Or a renegade like Maglarion?”

“Neither,” said Halfdan. “It might have something to do with the Ashbringers, though.”

Caina said a curse.

His smile was thin. “Given your recent experience with the Ashbringers, I knew I could rely on your help.”

“What is it this time?” said Caina, still angry. “Another fool digging into the past for arcane secrets?” She remembered Kalastus and Corazain’s book of pyromantic spells. “The magi love to loot old tombs and ruins for long-lost spells. Is that what’s going on at Riata?”

“You are correct,” said Halfdan. “You recall that the Saddai once ruled over the Disali hills, while they still had their empire?”

Caina nodded. “The Ghosts were founded here to fight the Ashbringers.”

“What is now Riata was once the stronghold of a powerful Ashbringer,” said Halfdan. “When the Empire conquered Disalia, the stronghold was destroyed and the town of Riata built over its site. But a few months ago Reorn, the donnarch of the local clans, began expanding his hall. The workmen found buried chambers beneath his cellars – the old crypts of the Ashbringer’s stronghold.”

“So the local chapter of the magi took over,” said Caina, “and are digging enspelled baubles.”

“Aye,” said Halfdan. “There aren’t many magi in Disalia, but they have a small chapterhouse in the port of Dizalis. The local preceptor, a young man named Tormalus, is ambitious. The magi are forbidden to wield pyromancy…”

Caina shook her head. “Kalastus would argue with that.”

“If he were still alive,” said Halfdan. “Reorn is afraid the magi will dig up some horror from beneath his hall, and Reorn is a friend of the Ghosts. So we are going to help him.”

“How will we disguise ourselves?” said Caina.

Halfdan tugged at his threadbare robe. “I am Marcus Antali, a wandering merchant known among the clans of the Disali. And his daughter Talia, traveling with her father in hopes of securing a wealthy husband.”

Caina smiled. “Good. Masquerading as Talia Antali is less work than pretending to be Countess Marianna Nereide.”

Halfdan grunted. “Cheaper, too. And it will be easier for you to move around if you have no noble rank and limited social prestige. Reorn is a good man, though his wife is a shrew. You can speak with their servants easily enough.”

“And any servants the magi have,” said Caina.

“Precisely,” said Halfdan.

“When do we leave?” said Caina.

“Tomorrow,” said Halfdan.

 

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That night Caina dreamed of caverns beneath the earth. Burned corpses lurked in the dark crypts and burst into flames as they pursued her.

She awoke in a cold sweat.

Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps the magi would dig up only dust and bones from beneath Riata…

Or perhaps they would find something worse.

If they did, Caina would stop them.

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