“Ghost in the Mask” excerpt

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CHAPTER 1 – DUST AND ASHES

Caina didn’t think she had to kill anyone at dinner, but she came armed anyway.

She sat on one side of the long table, her blond hair piled in an elaborate crown. For clothing she had chosen a rich gold-colored gown with black trim, the waist tight and the bodice low. Jewels glittered on her fingers, ears, and throat, and she had spent the better part of an hour applying slightly too much makeup. The net effect made her look like a merchant’s concubine, a peasant woman come into more money that she knew how to handle.

Which was exactly what Caina wanted.

When the powerful men looked at her, she wanted them to see Sonya Tornesti, the flighty mistress of the coffee merchant Anton Kularus. She did not want them to see Caina Amalas, a nightfighter of the Ghosts, the spies and assassins of the Emperor of Nighmar.

She especially did not want the magi to see the nightfighter of the Ghosts.

Given that the magi surrounded her.

She sat with Corvalis Aberon in the grand hall of the Magisterium’s Malarae chapterhouse. Just as Caina masqueraded as Sonya Tornesti, so too did Corvalis wear the black coat and white shirt and gleaming boots of Anton Kularus, master merchant. Kularus was rich, but not noble. In the Empire’s social hierarchy, that meant he had received an invitation to the new preceptor’s banquet, but he sat among the merchants and the lower-ranking members of the Magisterium.

“I must say,” said Corvalis, gesturing with his wine cup. He had grown a mustache and a short goatee, making his face look thinner and sharper. Caina did not care for it, but it helped disguise him, just as her dyed blond hair helped maintain her disguise. “Your new preceptor looks rather like an overfed owl.”

The magus sitting across from them, an emaciated-looking man in his middle twenties, blinked in surprise. Caina detested the magi, but Vanius was so timid that she only felt pity for him.

“Master Kularus,” said Vanius. “Septimus Rhazion is the new preceptor of the Malarae chapter, and deserves our respect.”

“I didn’t deny that,” said Corvalis, flashing a smile beneath his blond beard. “Is not the owl the wisest of all birds?”

“This is so,” said Caina, making sure to mask her formal High Nighmarian with a heavy Szaldic accent. Sonya Tornesti was Szaldic, even if Caina was not. “In the stories of the Szalds, the owl is often a bearer of wisdom.”

“Precisely, my dear,” said Corvalis. “I am sure the preceptor is most wise. Like an owl. Though he simply looks like an owl that has been overfed.”

Vanius blinked. “Ah…you may have a point.”

Caina looked across the dining hall of the Magisterium’s chapterhouse. Like the rest of the chapterhouse, it had been built of dark stone, enspelled glass globes throwing light over the walls and vaulted ceiling. Long tables ran the hall’s length, holding food and drink, and lords and merchants and magi and priests talked and ate. A dais with a high table rose at the end of the hall. The chapter’s master magi and the more prominent nobles sat there.

Septimus Rhazion, the new preceptor of the Malarae chapter, sat at the center of the high table. Halfdan, the circlemaster of the Ghosts, had secured invitations to the preceptor’s inaugural banquet, and sent Caina and Corvalis to discern whether Rhazion presented any threat to the Ghosts in Malarae. Rhazion had a formidable reputation within the Magisterium, had written several books dealing with the defeat and banishment of creatures from the netherworld.

Though Caina had to admit that he did indeed look like a balding, overweight owl.

And she suspected he was even less dangerous.

Caina listened with half an ear as Corvalis bantered with Vanius, her eyes on the high table. Rhazion had not stopped talking for nearly an hour, and even from a distance Caina heard his voice droning on about theories of arcane science. The eyes of the lords near him had grown glassy, and the master magi ignored their preceptor as they spoke with each other in low voices.

Their disdain for the man was palpable, as was Rhazion’s obliviousness to it.

Clearly, the man was no threat to the Ghosts of Malarae.

Of course, that sword was two-edged. Had Rhazion been a more capable leader, he could have forged the Malarae chapter into a formidable force, one capable of hounding the Ghosts. But a stronger preceptor would have kept the magi under tight control…and under Rhazion some magi might feel free to pursue the forbidden arcane sciences of necromancy and pyromancy…

The doors swung open with a massive boom.

Caina looked up, saw the man standing in the doors…and her right hand strayed to the throwing knives concealed in her left sleeve. Corvalis looked away from Vanius and frowned, hand falling to his sword hilt.

A silence fell over the hall.

The man was barefoot, clad in a ragged black magus’s robe with a soiled red sash. His graying hair stood up in an unruly shock, and several days’ worth of stubble shaded his jaw. He looked even more emaciated than Vanius, and his eyes glittered with something like madness.

His hand grasped the hilt of a sheathed dagger at his sash.

“Septimus Rhazion!” roared the magus, striding into the hall. He stopped between two of the long tables, twenty paces from Caina.

The dagger at his belt drew her eyes. The hilt was black, and she saw the gleam of a crystal in the blade. Caina sensed sorcerous power gathered within the weapon. A necromancer had wounded her as a child, and ever since, she had the ability to detect the presence of sorcery. The many minor spells employed by the magi had grated on her during the banquet.

But those were only pinpricks compared to the power within the dagger.

“Corvalis,” whispered Caina.

He nodded, eyes on the ragged man.

Rhazion rose with affronted dignity. “And who might you be?”

The ragged man spat. “You do not remember me, Rhazion? Have the years made your wits as feeble as your limbs?”

Rhazion’s brow furrowed in annoyance. “Your impudent tongue is…wait. I remember you. Jurius?”

“So you do recall me,” said Jurius. He took a step closer to the dais. A dozen master magi sat at the high table, and between them they had enough sorcerous power to crush Jurius to bloody paste. All the lords carried swords, and Magisterial Guards in their black armor lined the hall. If Jurius tried anything, either the magi would rip him apart, or the swordsmen would cut him down.

Yet she still felt the power radiating from his dagger. Power that felt disturbingly familiar…

“Indeed,” said Rhazion. “You should count yourself fortunate that I remember so minor a malefactor.”

“You cast me out of the Magisterium,” said Jurius, “because my knowledge frightened you, because my power terrified…”

Rhazion laughed. “That is not how I remember it. I cast you out of the Magisterium because you abused your arcane sciences to help the smugglers of the Inner Sea evade Imperial tax collectors. And you turned quite a pretty profit, as I recall. You were banished from the Empire for ten years…so I suppose you are within your rights to return. Though I will not accept you back into the Magisterium.”

“I did not come here to grovel,” said Jurius, “for I have grown far, far beyond your petty Magisterium.” The master magi chuckled among themselves. “Instead, I came to deliver a message.”

The magi laughed, as did the lords and merchants. Yet Caina and Corvalis remained silent.

She noticed how Jurius’s knuckles tightened against the dagger’s hilt.

“You should be grateful you did not try this foolishness in front of Decius Aberon,” said Rhazion. “He would have had you killed on the spot. But I do not wish to mar my first week as preceptor with bloodshed. So. Speak your message, and then remove yourself from the presence of your betters.”

Jurius laughed. “Very well. I come to herald a new age! For you shall all see the glory of Anubankh!”

Again the magi laughed.

“Ridiculous!” one shouted. “You have taken in with a foreign cult? Go sacrifice a sheep and trouble us no more.”

Caina expected Jurius to take offense at the mockery, but the outcast magus only smiled. She searched her memory, trying to remember where she had heard the name Anubankh.

Because she was sure she had heard it before.

“You will see his glory,” said Jurius. “For his power is certain, and his prophet has spoken! The Empire shall fall, and a new power will supplant it. The Kingdom of the Rising Sun shall rise anew!”

And that made Caina sit bolt upright.

She knew what the Kingdom of the Rising Sun was, or what it had been. The Maatish nation had been ruled by god-pharaohs and necromancer-priests, sorcerers without equal. The Kingdom of the Rising Sun had fallen long ago, but its relics remained.

The necromantic knowledge contained in one scroll of ancient Maat, just one, had cost her father his life…and had almost killed every last man, woman, and child in Malarae.

“Anton,” she hissed under her breath, and Corvalis look at her. “We’ve got to kill him. That dagger. It’s a weapon of ancient Maat. Something of old necromancy.”

“Madam?” said Vanius.

“Vanius,” said Caina. “Warn the preceptor. The master magi. Anyone who will listen. That weapon is enspelled, and he’s going to attack.”

Vanius gave her a smile that tried for condescending, but only managed to make him look more nervous. “Madam, fear not. The master magi of our chapter are potent, and…”

“The spell to sense sorcery,” said Caina. A woman like Sonya Tornesti would not speak forcefully to a brother of the Imperial Magisterium, but they were in deadly danger. “Cast it at the dagger. Right now.” Vanius opened his mouth to answer again. “Do it now and I’ll pay you a thousand denarii.”

The young magus’s eyes widened.

“Make it two thousand,” said Corvalis, his face grim.

Vanius nodded and turned to face Jurius, his fingers moving in the beginnings of a spell. Caina felt the crawling tingle of sorcery as Vanius summoned power.

Meanwhile the gale of laughter that answered Jurius’s pronouncement had finally faded away.

“The Kingdom of the Rising Sun?” said Rhazion with a scoff of derision. “Had you bothered to pay attention to your studies in history, Jurius, you would know Maat fell two thousand years ago. Provincial brigands pose more of a threat to the Empire than do the Great Necromancers of ancient Maat. And the Empire has never been stronger. The Emperor has taken the desert of Argamaz from the Padishah of Istarinmul, and soon Lord Corbould will utterly crush New Kyre!”

A cheer greeted his words.

“No,” said Jurius. “Istarinmul will be laid waste. New Kyre will fall into the sea. And the Empire shall burn, and you all shall be slaves of Anubankh.”

Vanius finished his spell, and Caina felt the faint whisper of power.

His eyes got even wider, and the young magus surged to his feet.

“Preceptor!” he shouted, interrupting Jurius’s rant. “Preceptor!”

Everyone turned to look at him.

“Yes?” said Rhazion. “It’s…Vanius, isn’t it? What is it?”

“Preceptor, his dagger,” said Jurius. “There is a necromantic spell of surpassing power upon it! We are all in danger! Preceptor, we must act as once, we…”

The sound of scores of magi casting the spell to sense sorcery drowned out his words.

A heartbeat later the magi rocketed to their feet.

“What is that?” thundered Rhazion, and Caina saw the hint of fear on his face. “Where did you get that?”

Jurius began to laugh. “Do you not know, wise preceptor? Perhaps you should have paid closer attention to your studies of history! Permit to be your tutor!”

He yanked the dagger from it sheath and raised it high.

Caina had never seen a weapon quite like it. It had been forged of peculiar black steel, the blade marked with five glyphs of glowing green light. A rough emerald-colored crystal had been embedded in the base of the blade, just above the hilt.

She did not recognize the weapon…but she recognized that crystal. It was a thing of necromantic sorcery. It held the lives of its victims, and fed that stolen power to its wielder. She had seen one n the torque of the Kindred Elder of Cyrioch, and a far larger one atop Haeron Icaraeus’s mansion in Malarae.

A bloodcrystal.

“Behold!” shouted Jurius. “The Empire falls…and the Kingdom of the Rising Sun rises anew!”

“Kill him!” said Rhazion, and a score of magi began casting spells. Corvalis drew his sword, and the magi near Caina began summoning power. She jumped to her feet, reaching for a throwing knife in her sleeve.

Jurius laughed, high and wild, and swept the dagger over his head.

Caina felt a surge of sorcery from the weapon.

All around Jurius, the floor boiled with gray smoke, like dust swirling in a hurricane.

Dozens of human-shaped wraiths rose from the smoke, fashioned  of dust and dense gray smoke. The creatures had no features, their bodies rippling and undulating. Yet Caina felt power within them, raw necromantic force.

“Kill them all!” said Jurius, and the chaos began.

The shades surged forward. Screams and shouts echoed through the hall, and the lords and the merchants fled for the doors. Caina saw one of the shades touch a plump merchant, its arms sweeping through the man’s chest.

At once the man shriveled into an emaciated corpse, like a husk left to dry for a thousand years in the desert, and collapsed to the floor.

More men and women died as the shades continued their attack.

Caina yanked the throwing knife from her sleeve and flung it at Jurius with all her strength. The weapon struck his neck and bounced away from his skin in a spray of sparks, deflected by a warding spell. The renegade magus did not even notice the attack.

And still the gray shadows continued their attack.

“Die!” screamed Jurius. “Die, all of you, and rise anew as servants of great Anubankh!”

“Stand fast!” thundered Rhazion. “Brothers and sisters of the Magisterium, stand fast! Cast the third and the ninth warding spells! Quickly!”

Caina’s eyes swept the chaos, her mind working through plans. She did not know what kind of creatures Jurius had called up, but they were obviously deadly. And just as obviously, they were under his control. If she could kill him, or get that strange Maatish dagger away from him, the magi would overpower him.

She turned toward Corvalis, and one of the shadows lunged at her.

The creature flowed through the table as if it did not exist and reached for her. Caina jumped back, but she was wearing high-heeled boots and a long skirt, and she stumbled.

The shadow lunged at her, and Corvalis slashed it with his sword. His blade passed through the creature without harming it, and the shadow’s head rotated to face him. The shade flowed towards him, and Corvalis backed away, sword raised in guard.

Caina yanked the curved dagger from the sheath at her belt.

The dagger gave off a silvery gleam, its blade carved with Kyracian characters. The dagger had been forged with ghostsilver, a rare metal proof against sorcery.

And it also had the ability to harm creatures of sorcery.

Caina raked the dagger through the shadow. The blade flashed with white light, the handle growing warm. The shadow hissed, dissolved into swirling gray smoke, and dissipated into nothingness.

“I have to get one of those,” said Corvalis.

“They are useful,” said Caina.

She saw that Vanius had joined a group of magi standing near the columns. They cast spells in unison, responding to Rhazion’s bellowed directions. White sparks burst from their fingers, arcing across the hall to slam into the shades. The shadows rippled and vanished beneath the sparks, but still more rose from the floor.

Jurius attacked a group of fleeing merchants. A Magisterial Guard charged at Jurius, but his strikes rebounded from the renegade’s wards. Jurius slashed his strange dagger, and the blade opened a scratch, a tiny scratch, on the Guard’s jaw.

The Magisterial Guard collapsed, dead in an instant.

As he fell, gray smoke billowed from the joints of his armor, forming itself into another shade. Jurius howled with glee and attacked two merchants fleeing towards the doors. The lightest scratch from his dagger killed them both, and new shades rose billowing from their corpses.

“Gods,” said Caina, “he’s making more of them.” She saw a wave of the gray shadows advancing towards the magi gathered on the dais. The magi unleashed volley after volley of the white sparks, ripping the shadows to wisps of gray smoke, but more of the creatures rose from the floor. “He’s making them faster than they can destroy them.”

She felt Corvalis’s hard hand close around her left arm.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “We can’t fight those things, not even with your dagger. We need help.”

A dark thought flashed through her mind. The magi were the Ghosts’ enemies. If she withdrew, if she left the magi to their fate, Jurius and his dust-colored shadows might wipe out Malarae’s entire chapter…

Caina shoved aside the notion. She would not leave anyone to die at the hands of those creatures, not even the magi.

“No,” said Caina. “We can’t leave. Jurius and his damned pets will kill the magi…and then they’ll swarm through the city. If those things can kill with a single touch, they’ll kill hundreds of people before they’re stopped. Thousands, even.”

“Perish!” said Jurius, his voice ringing over the melee. “Perish, and rise as the servants of great Anubankh!”

“Then how do we kill him?” said Corvalis. “Your ghostsilver dagger can pierce his wards, but the shadows will swarm you long before you can get close enough to use it.”

“Easy,” said Caina. “We get his attention, lure him away from the others, and then deal with him.”

Corvalis blinked, and grinned at her. He had a reckless streak, enjoyed challenging himself…and Caina found that she shared that trait.

“Well,” he said, “lead on.”

Jurius strode towards the dais, the dagger raised over his head, ignoring the remaining lords and merchants. The great mass of shadows flowed towards the dais, forcing their way forward despite the spells of the magi. Caina glanced at the food covering the table, plates of bread and cheese, carafes of wine, a pork roast skewered on a steel spit over a metal pan of grease.

A metal pan that sat over a low fire to keep the roast warm.

“Your coat,” Caina said.

Corvalis shrugged out of his coat, and Caina grabbed the coat, wrapped it around her hands, and seized the grease pan. Even through the fabric she felt the heat of the steel.

“Jurius!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.

The renegade magus glanced at her, a sneer on his face.

Caina threw the pan at him. He was warded against steel, and the pan bounced away without touching him. He was not, however, warded against hot pork grease, and it splattered across his robe and neck and face.

Even over the chaos, Caina heard the sizzle of scorched flesh, followed by Jurius’s agonized scream. Jurius stumbled back, left hand raised to clutch his burned cheek.

As one, every shade in the hall turned towards Caina.

“I think you got his attention,” said Corvalis.

“Kill her!” screamed Jurius.

“Run!” said Corvalis.

Caina ran, her heels hammering against the stone floor. A narrow door stood on one side of the hall, leading to the living quarters of the magi. Caina threw open the door and hurried inside. Beyond she saw a narrow hallway stretching into the chapterhouse, lined on either side with wooden doors.

She slammed shut the door behind her.

“Either side of the door,” said Caina. “Now.”

Corvalis nodded. Caina went to the right side of the door and Corvalis went to the left. A heartbeat later the first shadow flowed through the heavy wood, and then another, and then another, and dozens of the things poured into the corridor. The creatures, whatever they were, should have seen her. But Caina suspected they were slaved to Jurius’s will.

And a man with severe grease burns across his face and neck would not be thinking clearly.

The door burst open, stopping an inch from Corvalis, and Jurius ran into the corridor, screaming curses.

Caina let him pass, then stepped forward and drove her ghostsilver dagger into his back with both hands.

Jurius stiffened, a scream bursting from his burned lips, and Caina felt the dagger’s handle grow hot beneath her fingers as it penetrated his ward. Jurius spun, ripping the dagger from her grasp, and slashed at her with his black blade. Caina dodged, the deadly weapon passing inches from her face.

The shadows flowed back towards them.

Corvalis slammed a fist into Jurius’s head. The blow knocked Jurius off-balance, and he fell backwards, the black dagger clattering from his hand.

He landed atop the handle of the ghostsilver dagger, driving it deeper into his flesh.

The renegade screamed once more and then went still, his eyes staring and glassy.

The shadows shivered and vanished into nothingness.

Caina stepped away from the wall, her pulse thundering in her ears.

Corvalis let out a long breath. “Good thing those creatures dissipated.”

“Actually,” said Caina, flipping Jurius’s corpse over, “I think they dissipated when he dropped the dagger.” She ripped the ghostsilver dagger free from his back, the blade glistening with blood. “We have to go. Any minute the magi are going to come through the door after him.” She knelt. “But we can’t leave this behind.”

Caina sliced a strip free from Jurius’s robe, wrapped her hands in it, and picked up the Maatish dagger.

She suspected touching the weapon with her bare skin would be a tremendously bad idea.

Even through the black cloth, she felt the dagger’s raw arcane power, felt it vibrating up the bones of her arm.

“I doubt we can leave through the main doors,” said Corvalis.

“No,” said Caina, straightening up. “Into one of the bedrooms, and out through the window.”

He sighed. “I hoped to take you to a fine banquet, and now we are fleeing through the window like common thieves.”

“At least,” said Caina, “I didn’t burn down any buildings this time.”

They retreated to one of the bedrooms, went through the window, and made their escape.

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