“The Burning Child” Excerpt

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Rachaelis Morulan felt someone following her.

She looked over her shoulder.

Traffic thronged Araspan’s dockside streets, men hurrying past the rows of squat brick warehouses. Endless rows of heavy carts hauled goods to and from the harbor, their wheels creaking. Here and there a horseman rode, carrying messages for the noble houses or the Conclave itself.

And everywhere Rachaelis saw slaves in their orange tunics.

Her mouth thinned a bit in anger.

But no one followed her.

“Rachaelis?” said her father.

Rachaelis turned her head, and Aramane Morulan smiled at her. He looked much the same as he had when she had been a child of eight – the same gray eyes, the same scholarly face, the same thinning brown hair. In fact, he looked exactly the same. Talvin’s spell had left his soul suspended between life and death, and Aramane’s body had not aged a day.

“Is something wrong?” said Aramane.

“I don’t know,” said Rachaelis. “At least, I don’t think so. I have the strangest feeling someone’s following me.”

Aramane nodded and swept his eyes over the street. The flow of traffic continued unabated, though everyone gave Rachaelis and Aramane a wide berth. They both wore the black-trimmed red robes of Adepts, and Aramane had the black stole of a Magister.

No one in their right mind challenged an Adept.

But most of the people who had tried to kill Rachaelis in the last month hadn’t been in their right minds.

“I don’t see anyone,” said Aramane. “It would be a bold foe who challenged two Adepts in the street.”

“I’ve seen nothing but bold foes lately,” said Rachaelis.

Aramane nodded. “True.” He sighed. “You’ve earned the right to some caution. But, come. We don’t want to keep Lord Corthain waiting.”

She did not. They would leave Araspan for Corthain Kalarien’s domnium of Moiria in the kingdom of Callia, to serve as his advisors in matters of magic. Rachaelis had come to loathe Araspan, to detest how the city and the Conclave relied upon the misery of their slaves. In Callia, no man was a slave or even a serf, and even the poorest peasant was a free man.

And she wanted to spend more time with Corthain.

She remembered kissing him on the balcony of the Red Water Inn, remembered…

Rachaelis followed her father, though she shot one more glance over her shoulder.

No one was following her.

But she still felt unseen eyes upon her.

A short time later they came to the Silver Coin, a spacious inn catering to foreign merchants. Corthain Kalarien awaited them before the Inn’s door, clad in the black coat, black trousers, white shirt, and boots favored by the nobility of Callia, a sword and dagger waiting at his belt. The sword was a relic of the Old Empire, while the dagger was a sicarr, an enspelled blade forged by every Adept as a test. Rachaelis had given it to him for saving her life.

And then he had used the weapon to save her life again.

She looked at him and smiled. His green eyes shifted towards her, and he smiled back.

A smaller man waited at Corthain’s side, cleaning his fingernails with a throwing knife. Luthair was Corthain’s seneschal, and had a peculiar variety of skills. He claimed to have been, at various times in his past, a tax collector, a horse thief, a stage magician, a merchant of rare cheeses, and the former illicit lover of the Queen of Saranor.

Rachaelis suspected less than half of that was true.

“My lord domn,” said Luthair with a bow in Rachaelis’s and Aramane’s direction, “your new advisors have arrived.”

“So I see,” said Corthain. “Magister, you and your daughter are ready to travel?”

“We are,” said Aramane. “Our luggage has been sent ahead, and we have said our farewells.”

Rachaelis nodded. Both Thalia and Magister Nazim would remain behind, and she would miss them both. But they had important work for the College Liberia, undermining slavery among the Adepts of the Conclave.

And Rachaelis was ready to leave Araspan.

“Then we shall depart,” said Corthain. “I’ve secured passage on a merchantman traveling back to Callia City. Taking on two Adepts as passengers made the captain nervous until I pointed out the obvious defensive advantages.”

“Especially,” said Luthair, “with the Khauldish slavers growing so bold for new inventory.”

He looked at Rachaelis, titling his head to the side as if puzzled.

Aramane offered a thin smile. “Any slavers that trouble us will learn the error of their ways.”

“Good,” said Corthain. “I’ve had troubles in Moiria with Khauldish raids. Two members of the College Liberia would help teach the slavers to look elsewhere.”

“We shall be glad to do what we can,” said Aramane. Again Rachaelis had the sensation of unseen eyes watching her, and she glanced over her shoulder.

She saw nothing but the usual mix of wagons and orange-clad slaves.

“Does Moiria have much trouble with ghouls?” said Aramane. “I traveled there in my youth, but…”

“Pardons, Magister,” said Luthair. “I have no wish to interrupt your wisdom, but someone appears to be following you.”

Rachaelis started to turn.

Corthain’s hand closed around her shoulder. “No, don’t turn around. Luthair?”

“A slave woman,” said Luthair, still cleaning his fingernails with that knife. “About forty. Fairly emaciated. She darted into the alley next to the warehouse as soon as I saw her.”

Corthain frowned. “Is she a Jurgur?”

Rachaelis shivered. The cult among the Jurgur slaves had worshipped a high demon as a god and regarded Maerwulf as a prophet. And Maerwulf had wanted to capture Rachaelis and force the high demon into her body, to twist her into the dark messiah of the Jurgur nation.

“Is she one of Maerwulf’s followers?” said Aramane. “Arthain said they were all slain, but even he might have missed a few.”

“Then she’s here for revenge,” said Luthair.

“Or,” said Corthain, “she has a demon in her.”

“If she is an Urthaag,” said Aramane, “we must deal with her. We cannot leave her behind to work additional harm.”

“We can delay our departure,” said Corthain. “Luthair.”

“She’s still in the alley,” said Luthair, reversing his grip on the knife.

Corthain nodded and loosened his sword in its scabbard. “Follow me.”

Corthain and Aramane took the lead, and Rachaelis followed them, Luthair strolling at her side. She summoned power, preparing to unleash magic at a moment’s notice. The High Art of the Adepts gave her many options to defend herself. She could sheathe herself in wards to turn aside both magical and physical attacks. Her spells transformed her very thoughts into blows of force or unleashed blasts of astralfire to harm both physical and incorporeal creatures. One demon-possessed woman was no match for her.

Yet Rachaelis still felt fear scratching at the back of her throat.

By the Divine, she was weary of demons.

Corthain entered the alley, and Rachaelis saw the slave woman.

She was thin and gaunt and middle-aged. Brittle gray hair hung around her thin face, her bloodshot blue eyes harsh. She was indeed Jurguri, with the inverted triangular scars of the Jurgur thrall caste on her hollow cheeks.

She stared at Rachaelis and snarled, her eyes full of hatred.

Corthain said something in Jurguri.

The slave hissed and spat upon the ground. “Do not defile our tongue, impure dog,” she said in accented High Imperial.

“Very well,” said Corthain in the same language. “Why were you following this Adept?”

Rachaelis saw the fresh cuts upon her jaw. Jurgurs of all castes cut themselves on the jaw when embarking upon a dangerous task, swearing by their blood to return either victorious or dead.

“Because,” said the slave woman, “she is a murderess.”

“I assure you,” said Aramane, stepping to Corthain’s side, “that she is not.”

“She slew the Master!” said the slave. “She slew great Maerwulf, the anointed of the high demon.” She spat again. “You could have been the earthly vessel of the high demon, and led the Jurgur nation to glory and power!” Her thin hands curled into fists. “Instead you rejected the Master’s gifts and spurned the high demon’s blessing!”

“Yes, refusing the possession of a high demon,” said Luthair, voice bored. Yet the knife remained motionless in his hand. “What poor taste, my lady Rachaelis. Can’t you see you’ve hurt the poor woman’s feelings?”

“Silence!” shrieked the slave. “The high demon shall wear flesh! The blood of Maerwulf will lead the Jurgur nation to glory again!”

“No,” said Rachaelis, “he will not. Maerwulf is dead. You should rejoice. He promised your people power, and led you to ruin and slavery instead.”

“Because we were weak,” said the woman. “Because we were not worthy of the high demon’s power! But I shall prove my strength!”

“Which is why you are following us,” said Corthain. “To kill Lady Rachaelis.”

The woman’s lips peeled back from her yellowing teeth in a snarl.

“Woman,” said Aramane, his voice gentle. “Hear me, I beg.”

The woman blinked. Perhaps an Adept had never used that tone with her before.

“You put your trust in Maerwulf and his high demon,” said Aramane, “and they failed you. Their strength was an illusion, and they regarded you as a tool, as fodder to be thrown away in pursuit of their own power.”

The slave said nothing, but some of the rage faded from her face.

“They abandoned you,” said Aramane. “Would it not be better to turn from them? Come with me to the Temple of the Divine, and you can free yourself from worship of demons forever.”

Rachaelis smiled at her father. He had always been ready to find common ground with his foes and turn enemies into friends. Little wonder he had been so respected among the Adepts, even though so few of them agreed with him. She hoped the woman would take his offer. There had been too much killing already.

Then the woman howled with laughter, and Rachaelis’s hope vanished like a curl of smoke.

“Fool!” shouted the slave woman. “Your weakling god is no match for the wrath of the demons!”

Rachaelis heard a distant scream and the sudden sound of running footsteps.

“You slew the Master,” said the woman, “but the Master’s son lives! You shall perish. You all shall perish!”

Another scream echoed over the rooftops, followed by a peculiar growling noise.

“Father,” said Rachaelis.

Corthain drew his sword, the dark steel glimmering. “Something’s amiss. We had best find out what is happening and …”

The woman changed.

Her orange tunic ripped to shreds as her body reformed itself, her thin limbs swelling with muscle, bristling black fur sprouting from her skin. Jagged black fangs filled her mouth, long black talons erupting from her fingers and toes. Her eyes blazed with crimson flame, the same red light Rachaelis had seen in the eyes of the Urthaags, the Jurgurs who had voluntarily taken demons into their bodies.

But the Urthaags had kept their human forms. They hadn’t transformed into misshapen hybrids of wolf and human.

“Damn it!” said Luthair. “An Urvuulf!”

Rachaelis raised her palm, summoning white astralfire, and her father did the same.

But the Urvuulf was far too fast. It sprang to the side with a bellow, and its claws plunged into the warehouse’s brick wall like knives sinking into cheese. The twin blasts of white astralfire splashed off the cobblestones of the alley. The Urvuulf shoved off the wall, so fast it seemed a black blur.

It slammed into Aramane, driving him to the ground.

“Father!” shouted Rachaelis. She began another spell, but the Urvuulf drew back its clawed hand. The thing was hideously fast, and it would tear out Aramane’s throat before she could strike.

All those years trying to learn what had happened to her father, only to see him die like this.

Rachaelis screamed, summoning power.

Corthain’s sword flashed in a dark blur, and the blade forged by the ancient smiths of the Old Empire sheared through the hide and muscle and bone of the Urvuulf’s neck. The creature’s head jumped off its shoulders and rolled across the alley. The Urvuulf’s body swayed for a moment, and then toppled off Aramane.

As it fell, it changed. When it struck the ground, it was again the body of the gaunt Jurgur slave woman. The severed head struck the wall, shrinking to a human shape once more, dead eyes glaring from the motionless face.

Rachaelis rushed to Aramane’s side.

“Father,” she said. “Are you all right?”

Aramane sat up, rubbing his chest. “I believe so. That…creature, whatever it was, caught me off guard.” Another scream rang out, louder than before. “What was that thing, Corthain? A demon?”

“I’ll explain in a moment,” said Corthain. His voice was calm, but his green eyes were hard and wary. “First hit that corpse with white astralfire. Else the demon inside will raise it as a ghoul in a few moments.”

“Of course,” said Rachaelis, chagrined that she had forgotten. She unleashed the power she had summoned, and a lance of white astralfire burst from her fingers and struck the corpse. For a moment it seemed as if a hooded wraith of crimson light writhed over the body, straining against white flame, and then Rachaelis’s astralfire devoured it.

“You called that thing an Urvuulf,” said Aramane as Luthair helped him to his feet. “What is it?”

Rachaelis heard more screams.

“A breed of demon,” said Luthair. “A lesser demon, true, but still strong. A Jurgur takes a normal demon into himself, you get an Urthaag, which is bad enough. But if a Jurgur takes a demon of fury into his body, you wind up with an Urvuulf. When they draw on their demon, they get…furry.”

Corthain crossed to the mouth of the alley. “The Jurgur horde used them as scouts. They’re stronger and much faster than normal men, and have sharper senses. But they’re dangerous and unreliable. Urthaags are mad, but can draw on the cunning of their demon. When an Urvuulf gives himself over to his demon, he tries to kill everything in sight.”

Rachaelis saw a dozen men sprint past the alley, terror on their faces.

A moment later a pair of Urvuulfs raced after them, snarling.

“And there are Urvuulfs,” said Corthain, “loose in Araspan.”

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